The July/August issue of the Explorer carried an impassioned call from Chris Amato for the Department of Environmental Conservation to implement a permit system for the High Peaks Wilderness Area.
Amato’s rationale was that the High Peaks no longer meet the definition of a “wilderness area” contained in the Adirondack State Land Master Plan (ASLMP). The ASLMP definition includes the phrases “untrammeled by man” and “outstanding opportunities for solitude.”
Certainly no one, least of all me, will argue that there isn’t significant evidence of human “trammeling” on most routes leading to the 4,000-foot peaks; and on many days “solitude” is in short supply on these same routes. However, one must realize that all of the evidence of human activity is confined to the trail corridors and campsites adjacent to those corridors. Using the statistics for trail miles and campsites as inventoried in the High Peaks Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan, one can calculate that only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total area of the High Peaks Wilderness is actually impacted by humans. That calculation assumes that each mile of trail is 10 feet wide and that each campsite impacts one-eighth of an acre; but in reality most trails are narrower and most campsites are smaller. So, while what one sees when on a hike to a popular summit might indicate that the whole area has been negatively impacted, the reality is that most — that is, 99.9 percent — of the area remains undisturbed and virtually unvisited.
Amato’s concern for the “overuse” of the High Peaks is hardly new. In what I call the “back-to-the-land” surge of use in the early ‘70s there was a sudden increase in the number of rescues, and there was certainly more evidence of use on the land. Typical of the concern expressed at the time was a June 1974 column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise by Paul Kelsey — identified as “regional conservation educator.” To encourage use elsewhere, Kelsey wrote, “hikers outside the high peaks are less apt to be swept up in a traffic jam.”
Fast forward twenty-six years to the December 2000 issue of the Explorer and I wrote the “No” side of an “It’s Debatable” column when the question was, “Should we limit hikers in the High Peaks?” Year 2000 was at the end of what I call the “time-for-some-healthy-exercise” surge in the High Peaks in particular. The “Yes” side was presented by John Sheehan, communications director for the Adirondack Council. Sheehan wanted a permit system to divert use away from the High Peaks. I believe he exaggerated the damage being done by some “knuckleheads” and then proposed to “encourage them to go to Pepperbox, West Canada Lakes or the Five Ponds wilderness areas, where they can wander for weeks without bothering anyone.” Great, send the “knuckleheads” to trash those areas when it would be much easier to control such behavior in a more concentrated area.
My counter at the time was to note that the net effect of limiting use on one trail would be to increase use on other trails. I finished by noting that the previous October weekend I had driven past a crowded Cascade Mountain trailhead and hiked twelve miles, visited two attractive summits, and not seen a single other person. I enjoyed my day and presume those who hiked Cascade also enjoyed their day in the mountains without any “outstanding opportunity for solitude.” I concluded by saying that I preferred to preserve the choice of hiking experience.
Now we are in the midst of what I call the “social media” surge in hiking use. There is no question that there are more people than ever on the trails and summits and that many of them need to be educated or in some cases outright constrained. I still maintain, however, that such education and control are far easier to implement when the vast majority of the “newbies” are in a few predictable locations — not deliberately spread out.
Furthermore, as a practical matter, what areas would be subject to a limiting permit system? Limit it to just the High Peaks, Dix (now part of the High Peaks), and Giant wilderness areas, and then Hurricane, Jay and Whiteface end up absorbing the redirected use. Add in those areas (good luck with enforcement) and McKenzie Mountain becomes the alternative, and so on.
Meanwhile, there are still many parts of the High Peaks Wilderness Area (not to mention most of the nineteen other designated wilderness areas) where one can find solitude even on a busy weekend. Most recently, I hiked seventeen miles across a part of the High Peaks and never saw another soul. Furthermore, the whole way I was on soft, uneroded trails.
There is, thus, still that choice, and I don’t believe we yet need to institute an elaborate permit system that would “guarantee” what kind of experience one has when hiking in Adirondacks.
A version of this story first appeared in Adirondack Explorer.
Photo of Hiker on Giant Mountain provided.