Sunday, January 13, 2019

Viewpoint: Don’t Overreact to High Peaks Crowds

by mike lynchAnyone who regularly drives Route 73 between the Northway and Lake Placid knows there has been a tremendous spike in activity in the High Peaks over the last few years. Parking has exploded, with vehicles sometimes lining the road for a mile between Chapel Pond and St. Huberts, dangerously crowding the trailhead at Cascade Mountain and overwhelming lots at Adirondac Loj, the Garden, Ampersand and elsewhere.

Trail use has soared correspondingly. The Cascade trail regularly sees hundreds of people on summer weekends. Many other trails are badly eroded and even remote summits can be crowded. This increase is no anomaly: the trend lines show it is the new normal.

This year these concerns came to a head, with extensive media coverage of “overuse” and plenty of discussion among residents, visitors, local government, environmental organizations and state agencies. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation convened focus groups to better understand the problem and consider potential solutions. The DEC also released an amendment to the High Peaks Unit Management Plan that proposed actions including restricting parking, building new lots, closing or relocating trails, encouraging alternate hikes and providing better trailhead facilities. Numerous ideas were put on the table. There was even serious talk of requiring permits to limit access. The state took a few immediate actions, some sensible and some controversial. Volunteer and environmental organizations did their share, upgrading trails and staffing summits and trailheads with stewards. Throughout, there was palpable concern that the High Peaks were being loved to death.

Here’s the thing, though. My own experiences in the High Peaks this summer tell a somewhat different story. Yes, parking areas are frequently overwhelmed, leading to dangerous situations. Yes, trails are busier and trail erosion remains a critical problem. Both those issues need comprehensive responses. But on the balance, I experienced a High Peaks Wilderness that is in substantially better condition than it was five years ago, or even 15 years ago. The opportunities for a true wilderness experience with solitude and remoteness remain in bountiful supply. I do think we need to react to ongoing challenges, but the last thing we need to do is overreact.

How can I claim the High Peaks Wilderness is in better condition? I’m in the backcountry regularly, but it was a long overdue family reunion that afforded me with an opportunity to hike trails I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, including all of the places featured in overuse discussions. The contrast with what I saw years ago is encouraging. Sure, areas are busier, but they are healthier too. The amount of garbage and litter is much less than 15 years ago. Revegetation efforts have greatly improved places like Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, and alpine summits. Human waste is less evident. Food storage and management is clearly better. Bear problems are reduced.

I’ll be the first to admit this is anecdotal. I’m all for more science and data to better measure and understand human impact in the High Peaks. That said, I undertook a dozen extensive hikes throughout the High Peaks and Giant Wilderness areas and what I saw was consistent.

So why is the High Peaks Wilderness healthier if use has increased? All the credit goes to the people working hard to protect it. That starts with volunteers, trail associations, clubs and environmental groups, right through to forest rangers. These people do the dirty work to keep the interior protected and beautiful. But there is a common thread that I think is the key: hiker enlightenment. True, increased use has supplied a whole new crop of unprepared hikers, but overall the level of awareness concerning everything from bear canisters to alpine vegetation is different than in the past. Education is working.

Take Cascade, for example. I saved it for Labor Day weekend when the count at 10 a.m. showed 200 hikers already underway. Yet I saw no litter. No one was skirting muddy areas. Folks on the summit were dispersed, on rock, and respectful. The trailhead and summit stewards clearly were making all the difference.

That tells me education is more important than the numbers. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Hiker enlightenment can result from some- thing as simple as two minutes with a steward or ranger, or from excellent interpretive signage. It’s partly an ethos, an expectation. We need an even stronger focus on education.

Some argue that the wilderness character of the High Peaks is being lost to this increased use. Setting aside my extensive experience to the contrary, I have real problems with limiting access. For one thing, heavy use is spotty, dependent upon weather, season and location, while the vast majority of the Adirondacks suffers little overuse. For another thing, the increase in use has not yet led to a corresponding increase in diversity. If we want the Adirondack Park protected in perpetuity we need the full spectrum of New Yorkers to feel welcome to experience the affirmation and grandeur wild places provide. Limiting access would make that challenge harder. My home looks out on Cascade Mountain, an immense privilege. What right do I have to limit access to those who would climb it?

We need to address parking and transportation issues. We need increased resources for trail maintenance. Both should fall within a comprehensive, long-term planning framework. But we don’t need reactionary steps, and limiting access should be a last resort. Good planning, with education and hiker enlightenment at the core, is the better path.

Photo by Mike Lynch.

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




36 Responses

  1. Suzanne says:

    Excellent article, Pete.

  2. Bill Keller says:

    I enjoyed you article. I haven’t hiked the high peaks since the 80’s, too many people for my “wilderness” experience. 200 hikers by 10:00 am,on one trial. Seems crowed even for Labor Day. When will the trials be paved?(s)

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete is correct in his assessment. Overall, conditions [excepting trail erosion] are better than they used to be and my experience goes back to the late 1950’s.
    The increase in education is great and quite successful. What’e clearly needed is more money for and increased staffing of the DEC. You who read this know what it’s about. Urge all our elected leader to make it happen!

    • Glenn Chapman says:

      Less traffic. No amount of money
      is gonna change that. Everything
      has limitations. What do they say
      about to much of a good thing?
      It’s time to put limitations on the
      High Peaks overuse is gonna
      kill it. Money isn’t always the answer!

      • Bob Meyer says:

        Glenn, maybe it will come to that… but that’s a slippery and dangerous slope… pun intended . how do you put limitations on public lands owned by all New Yorkers without abridging their rights? permits? fees? all very problematic.
        1st things 1st: we need more money and staff to handle the reality on the ground. it’s a pressing need. Cuomo needs to get off his all too political ass and make it happen!

        • Bill Keller says:

          There’s limits put on hunters and fisherman and don’t forget snowmobiles today. What’s wrong with the hikers? Maine has limits going up Mt Katahdin why not the overused high peaks? Just compare the trails of the central ADK with those of the high peaks, same resources with little to no erosion. So if the state had the funds maybe they could gravel the path or pave it (s).

      • Suzanne says:

        We can’t put limitations on the High Peaks. It is public land and the heritage of all New Yorkers. What is needed is more staff and better pay for the Rangers, as well as more education along the lines of “leave no trace.” Hikers seem to be much more careful about carrying out their trash, but there’s room for improvement.

        • Jay says:

          As a non- NewYorker, aspiring 46er, I wonder what’s wrong with meeting in the middle. By that I mean, leave the rules as is for the folks who own the land – NewYorkers. And impose small fees and/or limitations and permits on folks like me who drive down from Ontario to climb. That doesn’t seem unreasonable and it’s people like me who would be affected.

  4. Glenn Chapman says:

    I believe some trails should be closed
    to releive the stress on them. Alternate
    trails year to year. Give the High Peaks
    time to heal. When I read about over
    65 people on Marcy at one time that’s
    a bit crazy. Theirs no enjoyment or
    enjoying the wilderness experience
    In that for the people who truly are
    there for that. Everything needs limitations.
    I’m a 46er and stay away now because
    it’s being overrun by people that don’t
    believe in “leave no trace “ or get the
    Spiritual aspect of the mountains. It’s
    just a goal.

    • Boreas says:

      Glenn,

      I can’t say this for a fact, but I would bet data would show a correlation between trail use increase and the increasing use of portable social media such as SnapChat and others. I believe much of the increase in trail usage over the last decade or two is not due to people seeking solitude and spiritual experiences. I believe people are drawn to popular places for social reasons more and more. And I also believe a similar correlation exists WRT backcountry S&R.

    • Boreas says:

      After I posted the above comment I thought of something else. In pre-internet days, clubs such as the 46rs and ADK were essentially the “social media” of their day – using letters and registers as their content. Now, in addition to these ‘old-fashioned’ clubs, Facebook, SnapChat, and the like are the ad hoc “clubs” of today, but using electronic media instead. I am not judging either form of organization (at least in this post) but just making an observation.

    • Terry V says:

      In the words of George Mallory “Because it is there” We are talking about climbing mountains. This means something different to everyone. To you”65 people on Marcy at 1 time is a bit crazy”, but someone else might find it empowering the way I find a great speech empowering. How do you know that those people don’t “get the spiritual aspect of the mountains”? As a atheist I don’t ever get the Spiritual part but on a peak I can see how others might. When I run a 1/2 marathon I always am asked by someone what was my time. My usual response is “a little faster than the guy didn’t run the 1/2 marathon” Remember hiking those mountains is not easy. Hiking those mountains is hard . Those mountains are the same height now as when you climbed them. Both you, a while back and the new climbers have one thing in common. In the words of JFK you climbed them “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”

      • Glenn Chapman says:

        Getting the spiritual aspect of
        being in the Adirondacks has
        nothing to do with religion. And
        I was lucky to wander around in
        the forest when it was less crowded. With a few friends who
        got back in to get away from the
        noise. To escape. To listen to
        the quiet. And when we hiked
        out you’d never know we were
        there. The only religion was “leave
        no trace”. I’m a proud 46er . I’ll
        have no more comment’s. Things
        change that’s the only consistent.
        I hope everyone has the same awesome experience and has the
        great memories I have of my time
        in the Adirondack High Peaks.

  5. Patrick says:

    Wow, two pieces (albeit one poorly argued) in a week showing signs of sanity in these conversations.

    “I have real problems with limiting access”. Amen.

  6. Paul says:

    Sure would be nice if you gave credit where credit is due as you no doubt ran in to a 46er trailhead steward or two when you hiked Cascade on Labor Day. The 46ers have been doing that for two years now and I believe it directly correlates with the better conditions and hiker behavior you saw on that hike on that day. Hopefully it translates to other areas of the park.

  7. Thanks Pete! #AddNYSRangers

  8. James Marco says:

    Yes, I agree. But the total number of people in the HP’s means I will NOT go there. I used to love it up there in the 70’s & 80’s. Sometime people were really stupid about their food leading to the problem with bear cans. Perhaps limiting the parking, and enforcing the limits, will do that.

  9. Terry says:

    My assessment is totally different. I climbed all the peaks between 2001 and 2006. I enjoyed every hike. I didn’t mind the mud. It was part of the experience. I always felt embraced by nature and at peace. This past summer I decided to climb Algonquin again. I was irritated and annoyed constantly by all the man made stone staircases (of which I believe there were over a dozen). The beautiful rhythm of hiking was diminished to an experience little different than walking up a staircase in a shopping mall. I understand the intention is to preserve the trail, however there is a quote that I love about how man’s soul needs to be in Nature undisturbed by man. This is why I go to the Mountains. However, my soul certainly felt the disturbance.

    • Suzanne says:

      Terry, it’s been a while since I’ve climbed Angonquin, although I’ve climbed it six or seven times–except for Gothics, it has always been my favourite. I don’t recall the stone staircases, perhaps they were built after my last time there. They were built for a purpose. I have spent extensive time hiking in Nepal, including a season as a trek leader, and there are stone steps everywhere there, on all the trails. These steps have been there for hundreds of years and enable people, their goods, yaks and mules to get where they need to go. They are beautiful and useful, surrounded on all sides by nature, and in no way resemble a staircase in a shopping mall. My soul felt no disturbance, although my legs certainly did by the end of the day.

      • Terry Myers Coney says:

        Suzanne,. Yes. You are right. Popular treks in other countries indeed do have stone staircases as well. I had thought of that as I climbed Machu Picchu a few years ago and the whole thing was stairs. ( And most likely would have been impossible to climb otherwise). None the less, like you, last time I climbed Algonquin there were no stone stairs and I found it very disturbing to see it change. I guess it is what it is. But I sure liked it better as it was.

  10. Mchael Marzullo says:

    It’s very hard for me to not overreact to this explosion of use in the high peaks. I’m happy that it has brought more money to the area, but I too have stayed away. I go to the mountains to find my solitude, and that can’t happen when I’m rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other people on the trail. I am enormously grateful for all the hard work the 46rs, summit stewards, and DEC rangers have done to insure people are safe and educated about being in the wilderness. The only thing that gives me hope is that, typical of other social media trends, I believe that in a few years the numbers will lessen back to a more sustainable level. Less than a decade ago, obstacle course races like tough mudder and Spartan were all the rage. Now you hardly hear about them. Triathlons saw a boom and now have seen numbers drop. Eco-challenges are the current fad and I expect millennials will tire of those challenges as well. We fly fishers laugh about the boom of interest that occurred after “the movie” (A River Runs Through It). In syracuse alone we saw our local fly shop numbers triple. Sadly – or, maybe not so sadly – most of those fly shops are closed as interest waned. Fortunately, many of these people are easily bored and will move on. And then we can all sit around and joke about the high peaks “millennial flood” years.

    • Suzanne says:

      I hope you’re right about that. There are plenty of smaller peaks that aren’t as interesting or so readily available to the crowds, but offer some solitude, peace and quiet, and perhaps the chance to see a fisher, a red eft or a Bicknell’s thrush. My go-to place was always Baxter, because I live across from it and have climbed it at least once every summer for 60-plus years. I would stop and hang out with the Beedes on their front porch on the way to and from. Unfortunately, little Baxter has now been publicized as an easy hike, and the last time I was there, I found a loud group yakking about Manhattan real estate prices (speaking of wilderness experiences . . . ) and a man yelling at his kids not to eat the blueberries because they might be poison. Deciding it was time to get the hell out of Dodge, I headed down the beautiful Upham trail, stopping at a favourite rock, where I found a pile of fairly fresh poop and toilet paper. Ewww. I buried the poop and burned the TP. Who does that sort of stuff? Whomever they may be, I hope they will go away to find other pastimes.

  11. John T Hicks says:

    You can open all the new stores in the mall you want,but ,the anchor stores get the most traffic,period.

  12. Paul says:

    It’s not entirely clear to me what the “overreaction” that Pete describes is?

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      I was thinking the same thing. There has been much alarm, but I haven’t seen much reaction other than adding some stewards and shoring up the worst sections of trails. Parking lot overcrowding seems to have gotten more reaction than trail overcrowding – likely due to safety and traffic concerns. I guess the next decade or so will tell. A large, sustained increase in fuel prices may have a significant impact on tourism to the area – perhaps even more than any types of limits trail that could be imposed.

      • Paul says:

        A quick parking ticket blitz in places where all the illegal parking is happening would take care of some of this. If you keep letting people park along the road near places like Ampersand and the Loj then you shouldn’t be complaining. It doesn’t take any additional DEC staff, we already have lots of state police around the tri lakes area. With Troop B in Ray Brook I see more cops there than just about anywhere I travel in NYS.

  13. Todd Eastman says:

    Human impacts from hiking in the High Peaks are dwarfed by the impacts from airborne pollutants, WQ issues from roads and septic systems, among scads of other threats other than hiking shoes…

    … get out of your stupid echo chamber😊

  14. Ray Mainer says:

    There is not overuse-there is under maintenance.

    • ADK Camper says:

      THIS. THIS. THIS!
      NYS chose to take a hands off approach. Not the hikers. Who does the majority of trail work? Certainly not State employees… It’s the hikers.

  15. Curt Austin says:

    I’m with Pete.

    I’ve done the 46 twice, once in the ’70s and ’80s, once in 2012. Not drastically different. The “trail-less” peaks are a lot easier. The state-maintained trails are still largely unmaintained (not entirely sure that’s a bad thing). The bears have gotten bolder. Rules about large groups, fires and bear canisters – all good. Compared to the overall experience, these are minor, either unrelated to crowds or small changes that might have been good my first time through.

    Just to rattle the cages of some would-be environmentalists, let me suggest that if action is required to reduce trail use, the first should be to prohibit dogs. [ducking]

  16. ADK Camper says:

    This is the most honest, logical and best article regarding the High Peaks that I’ve read in years.

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