The Coronavirus pandemic is asserting its influence on Adirondack summer recreation, amplifying worries about public safety and the increased number of visitors, especially in the High Peaks. There are many questions: will there be more hikers this season? Fewer? Will choked trail heads be COVID vectors? Will novice visitors seeking to escape both the coronavirus and social isolation mean an increase in unprepared hikers and rescues? Will a decrease in the usual resources such as open facilities, trail stewards and shuttles cause our visitor management challenges to be overwhelming? No one knows. Understandably, concern is high.
With that concern I see an increase in the impulse to take negative measures. Whether it’s a broad policy aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 (urging potential visitors to stay home), a more directly expressed sentiment (telling visitors to go home) or a tactical initiative (expanded no parking zones with warnings to ticket or tow), there is an increase in strategies to discourage behavior.
Save for overtly telling people to “go home” (which I find xenophobic), I’m not criticizing any of these actions. In many cases they are unquestionably necessary for public safety or enforcement of laws. I live in Keene and the recent work to mark no parking/tow zones on Town streets was both appropriate and, frankly, imperative. That said, any behavioral psychologist will tell you that it is much more effective to encourage behavior that you want rather than discourage behavior you don’t want. So while I do not necessarily object to negative measures, I’d rather not lead with them. Sometimes we have to; but concern and fear too easily obscure the fact that often there is a better path. Education, information and encouragement are powerful things, and they appeal to people’s better impulses. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of visitors to the High Peaks do not want to give COVID-19 to anyone, nor catch it, nor do they want to damage the Wilderness.
This tension and balance between negative and positive has me thinking more and more about New York State’s Forest Rangers. In the last few years I have seen an increasing characterization of Forest Rangers as law enforcement officers. They are: as sworn Police Officers, Forest Rangers have a duty and mission enforce and uphold the law. But it troubles me that the role of Forest Rangers as positive ambassadors for the Forest Preserve is being reduced. Forest Rangers are experts in wilderness, in protection of natural resources, in public safety and rescues, in educating visitors about wilderness recreation and in managing visitor impacts. But the combination of too few of them for an increasing amount of State land along with too many rescues from the increases in unprepared visitors, all too often keeps them from being able to play that role. Add negative-reinforcement duties like patrolling the Route 73 corridor and writing parking tickets and it’s no wonder I almost never encounter Rangers in the back country any more. That is a terrible loss: it is during interactions with visitors at trail heads and in the back country that Rangers can bring all their expertise and knowledge to bear for the benefit of both visitors and the Forest Preserve. Rangers on patrol in the back country constitute positive reinforcement at its finest, and it is a role they are uniquely equipped to fill.
For anyone with a long history of hiking in the Adirondacks, these interactions are an instrumental part of their experiences. I feel for those few regular hikers of the 1970’s and 1980’s who did not have at least one encounter with the unforgettable Pete Fish. My frequent forays from Upper Works in the 2000’s involved some excellent interactions with the inimitable Del Jeffery. A few minutes with these guys or any of the other Rangers I have come to know is more effective than any other measure I can imagine taking, and that includes during this time of pandemic.
My point here is not about numbers. Yes, I join my environmental colleagues in a consensus demand for more Forest Rangers. But however many Rangers may or may not be on duty in the Adirondacks, I also call for recognition that their role as patrolling ambassadors is as important as any other role they play, save for rescues. Not only is it positive, but it is wedded to the Wilderness ethos itself.
In an era where it is more and more the case that wilderness is something to be conquered, the next peak bagged and checked-off, the wilderness ethos of which I speak, the same that fueled Bob Marshall, Paul Schaefer and Howard Zahniser, risks being devalued. In my mind this devaluation can be reinforced by visitor management measures that are negative, that send a message “you are not welcome.” I think we can send a message that people are welcome and still protect the wilderness. Forest Rangers have done exactly that for decades. We need their vital contribution to our benevolent wilderness ethos now more than ever.
The human touch is irreplaceable in promoting a wilderness ethos. It is the best way to protect the wilderness, manage visitors in a positive, affirming way and safeguard their lives as well. We need to find a way to enable Forest Rangers to rededicate themselves to their work as ambassadors for the Forest Preserve. The dividends this would generate would ripple through everything else we need to undertake in order to preserve the Adirondacks.
Adirondack Almanack file photo