The Adirondack Council’s 2019-20 State of the Park report is subtitled “Challenged by Success,” noting that the success of state tourism campaigns is straining the park’s lands and waters, as record numbers of hikers climb the state’s tallest mountains and as recreational boating and off-road vehicles gain popularity.
The challenge is especially noticeable in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, but can be seen in popular locations throughout the park, the report notes. State of the Park is the organization’s annual comprehensive assessment of the actions of local, state and federal government officials. This 38th edition rates 106 separate government actions.
The total number of park visitors is up almost 25 percent over the past decade, but some places the visitor increases are much higher. State records indicate, for example, that 4,000 hikers signed the trail register at Cascade Mountain trailhead on State Route 73 in 2000. By 2016, the number had rocketed to more than 34,000. All indications are those numbers are still climbing.
The success of the tourism campaign has also attracted boaters from around the Northeast to the Adirondack Park’s unrivaled network of lakes and rivers. Almost none of those boats are coming from waters where inspections and decontamination for invasive species are available.
The success of the off-road vehicle industry poses a challenge for protecting the wild character of the Forest Preserve.
By far, the biggest news and greatest success of the year came when the Governor and Legislative leaders adopted a nation-leading climate change law. That will bring new challenges to develop cleaner transportation and home heating in the Adirondacks, but those are welcome challenges as efforts ramp up to combat harmful impacts of climate change.
Sadly, there was no agreement on a host of other important environmental initiatives, nor was there much relief offered to overworked and understaffed state environmental agencies whose dedicated staffs need the help. Progress on overuse was modest.
The Adirondack Council wants to encourage hikers and boaters to come to the park. We want the state to combine its tourism promotions with investments in wilderness protections and public education to help visitors avoid damaging the park’s pure waters, rare wildlife habitat and wilderness character.
The state must match its tourism investment with investments in a permit, or reservation, system for overused public lands, well-advertised options when popular locations are full, infrastructure to handle the crowds, and comprehensive planning to ensure that long-term goals and maintenance aren’t forgotten. And to keep aquatic invasive species out, we need a mandatory inspection program for all boats entering Adirondack waters, not just for Lake George but for the Park.
To address the challenge of off-road vehicle damage, the Council is calling for a general ban on the Forest Preserve, where they have done great harm. We believe there are other places in the park where they could be accommodated.
All of these priorities will require an investment in state personnel. The state’s main environmental agencies are still struggling with cuts made during the Great Recession a decade ago.
State of the Park also lays out Adirondack priorities for the year ahead in Top Priorities for 2020. The report profiles 10 conservation and community successes accomplished by other organizations, businesses and individuals, in its Tip of the Hat section.
On the federal level, State of the Park expresses concern over the success big air polluters have had in persuading the Trump administration to roll-back sensible environmental and public health regulations.
Coal’s comeback is a tragedy for the Adirondacks. This is reflected in the sections of this report covering the federal government, the courts and the state’s attorney general. We have had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency just to compel it to do its duty under the law. It is attempting to weaken or repeal the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, the Clean Power Plan, the smog standards that protect New York in the summertime, and parts of the Clean Air Act that require the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired plants in the nation to reduce up their emissions.
Highlights from individual sections of State of the Park:
Report Card – Thumbs up for signing a landmark climate change bill, clean water spending, invasive species and community projects. Thumbs down for only limited actions to address widespread overuse of popular trails; the state’s weak defense of the Forever Wild clause of the NYS Constitution (protects the public Forest Preserve); no new incentives for sustainable management of private forests and farms; no reform of the Adirondack Park Agency’s inadequate rules for development and disappointing funding levels for conservation projects.
Governor – Thumbs up for leadership national leadership fighting climate change, $1 billion in clean water funding, funding for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, community development grants and new appointments to his environmental advisors (plus five more items). Thumbs down for proposing only half a slate of nominees for the Adirondack Park Agency Board; for allowing APA leadership to languish; and for responding to the overuse problem by hiring only a handful of people, who will run the campground at the former Frontier Town in North Hudson (plus five more).
Legislature – Thumbs up for passing legislation to curb greenhouse gases statewide; proposing a Constitutional Amendment to guarantee all New Yorkers the right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment; approval of a bill to carry out the Adirondack Health and Safety Land Account, allowing small community project on alongside town and county roads that cross the Forest Preserve; and for renewing the law banning the transport of invasive species from one water to another (plus five more). Thumbs down for failing to improve the Adirondack Park Agency’s 48-year-old rules for development in remote and sensitive locations, despite wide consensus on the bill; not addressing the need for a supplemental grant program for clean water projects in the Park’s tiny communities; no new money for acid rain data collection despite moves by Trump administration to cut federal grants (plus one more).
Senate – Thumbs up to Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, for rejecting a half-slate of APA board nominees from the Governor; Sen. Peter Harckham, D-South Salem, for proposing legislation to raise the minimum age to operate an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) from 10 to 14. Thumbs down for proposing bills to nearly double the size of ATVs that may be registered for use on public lands and weaken registration mandates; and a bill to give upstate voters and officials more power by electing Senators by county rather than by equally populated election districts.
Assembly – Thumb up for beginning to work on curbing road salt. Thumb down for a bill that would open public lands to ATV use without review by the state’s current advisory board.
Courts – Thumbs up for the NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division decision requiring state officials to account for all trees it plans to cut when building roads and trails on the Forest Preserve and requiring that the full scope of the project be evaluated at the same time, not in segments; an Albany judge who gave more than a warning to a public official who falsified municipal water quality test results in an Adirondack community; and the NYS Court of Appeals ruling allowing the Adirondack Council to file a friend of the court brief in a case involving the protection of the Upper Hudson River under the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act.
Attorney General – Thumbs up to Barbara Underwood (2018) for leading a coalition seeking to compel the EPA to enforce pollution rules that are supposed to protect New York from smog; and to Letitia James (2019) for suing EPA over its attempt to weaken the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that forbids one state’s power plants from causing unhealthy air in another state; and for efforts to restore local control over the abandoned rail road corridor between North Creek and Tahawus.
Local Governments – Thumbs up for installing clean energy infrastructure; joining the state’s Climate Smart Communities grant program; calling on the state to assist with overuse issues in popular locations; and taking the initiative to create septic system inspection laws. Thumbs down for using its lobbying arm (Adirondack Assoc. of Towns and Villages) to call for expanded motorized recreation on the Forest Preserve; seek permission to use ATVs on the Forest Preserve; propose harmful amendments to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan; and refuse to support comprehensive boat decontamination to prevent the spread of invasive species (plus seven more).
Dept. of Environmental Conservation – Thumbs up for new state emissions rules curbing carbon from electric power plants that essentially ban the burning of coal by the end of 2020; recognizing and beginning to address the overuse problems in the High Peaks Wilderness Area and other locations; and for expanding public education (plus four more). Thumbs down for lack of comprehensive plan to address overuse problems; for pretending it has enough staff to fulfill its obligations to care for the Forest Preserve; using a permit system to limit overuse in the Catskill Park but refusing to implement a similar plan in the Adirondacks; and refusing to live by the mileage cap on public roads contained in the State Land Master Plan (plus eight more).
Adirondack Park Agency – Thumbs up for making progress toward better, more comprehensive planning; establishing a new protocol for assessing impacts from public recreation on wildlands; and for modest improvements to its assessment of large subdivisions (plus two more). Thumbs down for lobbying the Legislature to oppose improvements to its land-use code; for discouraging public comment on proposed changes to management of public lands; and for announcing it would develop a policy on renewable energy and then dropping the subject (plus one more).
Federal Government – Thumbs up to Congress for reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund ($900 million annually); and New York Congressional reps for winning an increase in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget (plus two more). Thumbs down to the Trump administration for repealing the Clean Power Plan to curb greenhouse gas from power plants; refusing to order Midwest power plants to turn on already installed pollution controls to protect the Northeast from smog; attempting to deregulate emissions standards for mercury and other toxic substances; imposing new cost-tests on pollution controls that would allow polluters to justify increases in smog and fine particles of soot that would cause thousands of premature deaths each year; and proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act (plus two more).
Other Agencies – Thumbs up for the Environmental Facilities Corp (EFC), which has provided millions of dollars in grants and loans for clean water projects in the park; the Dept. of Transportation for efforts to curb road salt’s impact on park waters (plus two more). Thumbs down for EFC for refusing to amend its internal rules for municipal wastewater project grants so Adirondack communities can afford them; for the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s unlawful ATV tours on the Forest Preserve at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center and for its initial plans to cut thousands of Forest Preserve trees to accommodate new sports facilities near Lake Placid (plus one more).
The Council’s Top Priorities for the Adirondack Park in 2020 are:
Defend the East’s Greatest Wilderness: Finish, fund and implement a comprehensive plan to address overuse including: more traditional Forest Rangers and other staff; address all-terrain vehicle misuse; and defend the NYS Constitution’s “Forever Wild” clause.
Combat Climate Change and Acid Rain: Fund and execute the new Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act; fight acid rain; promote clean energy and energy conservation; and dedicate new funding to acid rain and climate research.
Protect Clean Water and Reduce Road Salt Pollution: Continue clean water grants to communities at $1 billion per year or more; provide larger grants, not loans, to rural towns; and take comprehensive actions to address road salt pollution of drinking water.
Strengthen the Adirondack Park Agency: The Governor should appoint, and the Senate should confirm, a diverse slate of new and returning board members with expertise in environmental science, law, planning, park tourism, and development; and improve agency protections of large acreage in remote locations.
Update Invasive Species Protections: Strengthen the law against transport of invasive species from one lake or river to another; improve it with mandatory boat/trailer decontamination in the Adirondacks at a network of free inspection stations.
Support Working Forests and Farms: Secure new incentives, regulations and policies to promote ecologically sustainable, climate-friendly working forests and farms.
Improve Community Communications: Require telecom companies to provide universal broadband access in the Park; improve cell coverage via incentives for “substantially invisible” infrastructure in communities and on major highways.
Expand Conservation Funding: Expand funding for protection of pure water, wildlife and wildlands; fund increases in state staffing to address climate change, overuse, invasive species and other threats.
Photos, from above: 2019-20 State of the Park, and hikers on Big Slide Mountain by Nancie Battaglia.