Another peak hiking season has come and gone and with it another year of concern about overuse in the High Peaks. A variety of steps have been taken by the State, Essex County, The Town of Keene, environmental groups and volunteers to deal with this use, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Now it seems that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is poised to try out a permit system in an attempt to address overuse by selectively limiting access.
I didn’t buy it a year ago, and I’m not buying it now: not a permit system; not many of the tactics being tried; and not, frankly, the term “overuse” either. There is no question we suffer usage spikes that on a given day can wreak havoc with parking and access. Nor is there a question that we have major problems with trail damage and maintenance. But the sky over the High Peaks is not falling, not yet, and actions that are undertaken without fully comprehending the problem may very well be big mistakes.
I’ve been involved in this issue here and there and I was one of the people invited to the July stakeholder meeting that the DEC and Town of Keene convened. Do not count me with those who would cast aspersions on that meeting. It was convened in good faith and I’m confident the State is sincere in its efforts to seek broad input to address visitor management. I know the Town of Keene is sincere: they have done yeoman’s work this summer dealing with folks along Route 73. But the process does not benefit from rhetoric. “Overuse” is hyperbole, employed too often as a political calculation, and it conveniently stands in for a more complicated problem we don’t really understand.
Before we can address that lack of understanding, it’s important to get some facts straight about conditions in the High Peaks. News articles tout phrases like “the Park is being loved to death” and “the High Peaks Wilderness is being buried by garbage and human waste.” In fact this is not true. My own journeys, which have covered every major trail, camping area and summit in the High Peaks over the last 15 months, have shown me conditions consistent with what many High Peaks experts, from rangers to summit stewards to trail builders, have also said. Yes, day hiking is way up. But summit damage is down: on most summits it has been reversed, thanks to our amazing summit stewards; even on Cascade it has been arrested.
Campsites are better vegetated, garbage is down, human waste is down, bear incidents are down. Iconic gathering places like Lake Colden, Marcy Dam, Flowed Lands and the summits of Marcy and Algonquin all look better than they did ten years ago, and orders of magnitude better than they did in the 1970s and 80s.
I’ll be first to admit that without the very folks I just mentioned things would be different. But the fact that rangers, stewards, trail crews and volunteers have improved conditions in the interior even as hiking has dramatically increased, is quite telling. It strongly suggests that the numbers of visitors is not the issue. It also strongly suggests that education and affirming interactions with back country authorities is the big difference maker.
Still, to anyone who’s seen Route 73 traffic on a sunny weekend, it’s obvious that we have an acute visitor use challenge. So let’s break the problem down into a little more detail by addressing two important points that can help our understanding.
The first and most critical point is that the core of the issue is not regular overuse, but rather massive usage spikes which overwhelm existing infrastructure and resources. This is a different and considerably more difficult problem. First, spikes are hard to measure: we have spotty data on visitor use anyhow, but spikes make it hard to generalize or extrapolate with whatever data we do have. Second, spikes are very hard to predict. This fall the State, Town of Keene and volunteers geared up for Columbus Day weekend, but it turned out to be the Saturday before that was a record-setter, a virtual hiker armageddon. Why? The obvious guess is weather: there had been a long stretch of rain and cool temperatures for several days before, and demand was pent up. So when that Saturday broke sunny and perfect with fall colors at peak, everybody went for it.
But there wasn’t a similar problem the week before, nor is there one on the weekend I’m writing this; nor is there a problem most of the time. It’s simply a fact that on the majority of days of the year the High Peaks see at most moderate visitation. Indeed, I talked to a regular hiker who did Giant on the drizzly Sunday just before that crazy Saturday: he was the only person on the summit.
If a light drizzle can make “overuse” vanish, and a perfect day can annihilate the best laid plans, how do you predict and anticipate visitation? How do you cope with it? Not with solutions that don’t fit a highly dynamic problem. For example, banning parking for four miles on Route 73 might seem like a good idea to address regular overuse. But on a spike day, when every available off road parking spot is gone by 7 am, the hundreds of hikers who still need to park (and who, by the way, would like to feel good about both their hiking plans and our community) will do it along the road anyway, even deliberately poo-pooing pricey tickets. Meanwhile the number of people walking along a dangerous mountain highway will go up, not down, because so many of them can’t park near their desired trailhead. One Saturday morning I made two brief passes through the Roaring Brook area in my car and counted roughly seventy people walking along the white line. That doesn’t strike me as a public safety improvement.
Another example is the plan to build two new 20-car parking lots in the Chapel Pond area. Is expensive, permanent infrastructure a good idea to address volatile, unpredictable usage spikes? Even casual observation in that corridor shows that on most days of the year these lots will get light use. On a few days they might be just what the doctor ordered. But on heavy spike days they’ll be utterly crushed, and by 7:00 AM we’ll have the same problems we have now. I don’t want to propose solutions before we fully understand the problem either, but compare that approach to one that can dynamically adapt to an explosion of visitors, such as on-demand shuttle system combined with temporary parking areas and an on-call group of stewards, monitors and volunteers that can ramp up in real time. We need to think more about flexible, adaptable approaches like that.
The second point has to do with our badly eroded trails which, along with visitor parking problems, constitute the poster children for overuse claims. No one argues that many High Peaks trails are in terrible condition. But that isn’t an overuse problem: it’s a trail design and maintenance problem. Experts will tell you that beyond a reasonable threshold of use (and with Adirondack geology, it’s a pretty low threshold) the number of hikers using a trail is not especially relevant to the amount of erosion. Instead, it’s the topography, soil, and water along with the route and structure of the trail that matters. Casual experience makes that fact pretty obvious. My prize for worst major path in the Park goes to the Calamity Brook Trail, which, needless to say, was cut without modern design standards. For most of its length it’s more of a muddy, boulder-strewn scar than a trail. Yet it is not overused. In fact it gets less than a tenth of the traffic that the trail to Marcy Dam does. The Marcy Dam trail looks much better because it is better designed and has gotten the attention it needs. Sure, we need a dozen professional trail crews instead of just one, and in general the State needs to invest much more in sustainable trails. But that’s true regardless of current usage trends. It’s misleading to suggest that our lousy trails mean we have an overuse problem and need to limit access.
Into this messy fray comes the suggestion to try out a permit system, which strikes me as another proposed solution to a problem we haven’t grasped or measured. It might be that down the road, after we have more data and understand visitor use better, there will be some appropriate application for permits in the High Peaks, but to do it now strikes me as ill-advised.
First, it’s hard to see how a permit system will have any positive benefit or effect upon usage spikes. The same hundreds of carloads of visitors who aren’t in a frame of mind to care about parking restrictions are hardly going to be in a frame of mind to care about permits either (not to mention the fact that we lack the resources to enforce permits). So any hope to gather useful data from permits will be out the window, and the spike problem will not have been addressed. Second, permits by definition bring an equity problem. As a co-founder of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative I am strenuously opposed to any measure that further divides some people from other people. Third, many folks I talk to who live or govern here are opposed to permit systems for multiple reasons, among them the question of how to be fair to local residents. I think that’s very important. Finally – and tied to all these points – permits run contrary to a long-held tradition and value in the Adirondacks, that the Forest Preserve is open for all to enter and enjoy as they please, with no gates, booths or fees. That’s a remarkable, unique value and I think we compromise it at our peril.
I cannot support a strategy that limits access unless we absolutely have to do so in order to save the resource. I sit on my porch with a spectacular view of the Cascade Range; it is a great privilege to do so. In my mind I have no right to deny the experience of any similarly powerful vista to anyone who has the will to hike to it. More than that, I want people here.
Last year I climbed Cascade on Labor Day morning with 200 other visitors and we all had a wonderful time. I wanted every one of those people to experience and value this place. And they did. Then I went back to Cascade three days later and saw eight hikers.
It’s not anyone’s fault that attempts to address usage spikes have been less than successful. It’s a very hard problem, certainly beyond the scope of any one group or agency. The good news is that I think people at the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency understand this better than they are being given credit for. The organization to which I belong, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, has been calling for a comprehensive stakeholder-driven planning effort, placing science and data at the center, and organized around the Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF), a proven tool and approach developed by the National Park Service and partners. Lo and behold, at the last APA meeting it was announced that a joint APA/DEC group has adopted the VUMF as their planning tool and is tailoring it to fit the Adirondack Park. We applaud this excellent development.
I know that we cannot wait for a multi-year planning effort to take action: we need short-term steps that address the most acute problems. But even short term steps can be positioned within and informed by a larger framework that puts visitor management at the center and recognizes and understands the unique challenges of usage spikes. That kind of planning effort needs to happen now. Permits can wait.
Photo of hikers on Cascade Mountain by Mike Lynch.