New York State is one of the birthplaces of the American idea of wilderness. The Adirondack Park stands with Yellowstone and Yosemite as iconic landscapes that helped shape our ideas of the value of wild places. The Adirondacks served as inspiration to many of the early champions of wilderness preservation, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and his compatriots at the famed Philosophers’ Camp to Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser, who pushed to create a national wilderness-preservation system.
Indeed, the Adirondack Park is of global significance. UNESCO recognized the value of these lands and waters when it established the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It is one of just thirty Biosphere Reserves in the United States.
We should expect the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is responsible for protecting the Forest Preserve, to be a leader in wilderness management. The work that went into the 1999 High Peaks unit management plan (UMP) reflected a management philosophy that valued natural-resource protection and recognized the necessity of robust planning for such a valuable Wilderness Area facing numerous pressures. Unfortunately, since the original UMP, the state has failed to maintain itself as a leader in wilderness management.
Many of the issues discussed today existed at the time of the original High Peaks UMP, and management actions were proposed to address them. In the decades since, numerous actions have not been implemented and predictably the problems they were meant to address have only grown worse.
DEC’s recent amendment to the High Peaks UMP is a far cry from rising to the level we should expect for such an important Wilderness Area facing complex challenges. The amendment seeks to address problems identified in he original UMP but fails to discuss or analyze why the original management actions were never implemented or conduct an analysis of alternatives for the newly proposed actions. In fact, there is so little information presented in the document that it is nearly impossible to judge the soundness of the proposals.
Perhaps what is most upsetting about the current approach to management of our Wilderness Areas is the apparent disregard for the value of public input. Only a single scoping meeting was held to gather information to help inform DEC staff when drafting these proposals. Notably, this scoping meeting and the short period provided for written public comment did not convey that the amendment would address areas outside of the recent additions to the High Peaks Wilderness. The state went even further in limiting public involvement when, once the amendment was drafted, officials decided to combine the comment periods for DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency and offered just three public hearings.
Thankfully, other wilderness managers are not following the same path as New York State. The Forest Service and a number of stakeholders, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Waterman Fund, have been grappling with issues similar to those affecting the High Peaks on the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains. They set goals for desired conditions and visitor experiences, are studying how visitor use influences those conditions, and have committed to adaptive management and monitoring to remedy problems as they develop. DEC’s recent High Peaks UMP amendments commit to a similar framework, but there is quite a bit of ambiguity. The proposed Wildlands Monitoring Plan is a welcome first step that should have come in advance of the proposed amendments. This plan requires a considerable investment of DEC staff and resources, which raises the question of how thorough of a monitoring plan will be implemented. All of this is symptomatic of a state that values investment in land acquisitions and infrastructure over staffing. The state’s forest rangers are perhaps the most visible work force suffering from these lack of investments. The Police Benevolent Association has been advocating on behalf of the rangers to increase staffing levels with little success. Yellowstone National Park has 330 rangers, while the Adirondack Park only has fifty for an area three times the size. Rangers aren’t the only ones struggling with stagnant staffing levels—this is symptomatic throughout DEC.
Now is the time for New York State to reestablish itself as a leader in wilderness management. DEC needs to take on the challenging task of engaging stakeholders in a robust planning process to address present and emerging threats to the High Peaks Wilderness. We also need the governor and legislature to support expanded staffing and professional development across the department. The Adirondacks are a globally significant treasure handed down to us with the expectation we would continue to be good stewards of these lands. It’s time we started living up to the legacy of those that came before us.
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Explorer.