Thursday, September 10, 2020

“We are seriously degrading the resource”

Thank you to reporter Gwen Craig of the Adirondack Explorer (and Times Union) for her recent articles about recreational user pressures created by all of us entering the High Peaks Wilderness from the private lands of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR)/Ausable Club off of Rt. 73.

As reported, user pressures and resulting damage to the private lands have reached the point where the private landowner is considering restrictions or limits on public access through the AMR to the High Peaks Wilderness.

In her Explorer article dated Sept 3, Craig quotes the AMR president: “It’s forever wild and we need to protect the hiker experience; we need to protect the resource. These are important for the current hiking public and for generations to come, and we’ve reached a point where at least in the AMR’s case we are seriously degrading the resource.”

I applaud the landowner for publicly being accountable and to consider the serious step of limiting public entry to a limited, extremely sensitive, private-public wilderness environment.

On behalf of Adirondack Wild, it’s time for the leadership of the NYS DEC in Ray Brook and in Albany to similarly acknowledge the situation with the same seriousness of purpose and preparation to take actions commensurate with the ongoing degree and intensity of public use pressure and damage.

The original agreement

Thanks are owed to Craig for linking Explorer and Almanack readers to the actual conservation easement, the formal agreement between the AMR and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation signed in 1978.

A conservation easement is a negotiated, enforceable agreement between two parties which spell out primary and secondary purposes and objectives of the agreement, the rights in land use and development which are restricted and the rights which are reserved or preserved for the parties, and special conditions or circumstances which may trigger exercise of rights, in this case the right to condition or limit public access across the private land to the adjoining Forest Preserve.

What struck me in reading the 1978 conservation easement are its clearly stated primary objectives of protecting and preserving the intermingled natural state, scenic and aesthetic, fish and wildlife and overall wild condition of both the private land and the adjoining Forest Preserve.

To quote from the easement document, “whereas the Grantee (New York State) holds the benefited property (the Forest Preserve, or High Peaks Wilderness) as ‘forever wild’ lands pursuant to the provisions of Article XIV, Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of New York and otherwise for the purpose of keeping said lands in their present natural state as a preserve for indigenous flora and fauna and protecting and conserving their wilderness character and value as a natural, aesthetic, scientific and educational resource.”

In short, right at the start of the document it makes clear that the protection and perpetuation of wilderness character and value as a natural area and resource are primary under the Constitution and under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. Recreational uses, however vital and important, are secondary in the easement, under the Constitution and under the Master Plan.

That fact should be understood in weighing the impacts of access in 2020 by hundreds of hikers daily and tens of thousands of hikers annually – even without the presence of Canadian hikers during this pandemic year.

The easement similarly describes the primary objectives of the adjoining private landowner.

“Whereas the Grantor (Adirondack Mountain Reserve) and the Grantee (State of New York) recognize the value and the special character, as a natural, aesthetic, scientific and educational resource, of the region in which their respective properties are located” with each owner having the common “purpose and object of protecting and conserving the present natural state and inherent natural values, both tangible and intangible, of their respective properties as a natural, aesthetic, scientific and educational resource” by means of a conservation easement “to conserve and protect the animal, bird and plant population, and the purity of the air, water and environment and to prevent the use and development of the protected property for any purpose or in any manner which would in any way conflict with” those preservation and conservation objectives.

What it means

As Craig points out, under the 1978 easement (page 11)  the private landowner and the State have the right, in consultation and in agreement with each other, to close the trails through the private land or to limit public access “to the extent necessary” to protect them from “undue adverse environmental damage” or as needed to protect public health and safety and to protect the natural, aesthetic, scientific and educational resources of both the private and public lands.

That clause in the easement has been put into effect before. For example, it was used to close some of the trails during the Noonmark forest fire and firefighting response some twenty years ago.

As stated in the easement, both the AMR and the DEC have a common purpose. The NYS DEC should be taking the AMR’s present concerns about overuse and damage seriously and, as the easement states, “shall not unreasonably withhold” its consent to some limits on public access from the AMR into the High Peaks.

Considering the degree of overuse and damage and the overwhelming pressure on the town of Keene community, on the wilderness resource, on DEC Forest Rangers and on Summit Stewards, DEC should require no prompting from the private landowner, the AMR. The State Constitution and the State Land Master Plan demand that DEC, in consultation with others, act.

Call to action

The State Land Master Plan has the force of law. It directs that “where the degree and intensity of permitted recreational uses threaten the wilderness resource, appropriate administrative and regulatory measures will be taken to limit such use to the capability of the resource. Such measures may include the limitation by permit or other appropriate means of the total number of persons permitted to have access to or remain in a wilderness area or portion thereof during a specified period” and “the temporary closure of all or portions of wilderness areas to permit rehabilitative measures and “an intensified educational program.”

Therefore, DEC ought not wait for more alarm bells to ring. Given its legal responsibilities and reports from its own Forest Rangers, DEC ought to immediately direct its staff to formally launch study and planning of a permit reservation or limited entry system for portions of the eastern High Peaks Wilderness and involve the towns, the public and adjoining private landowners in the planning process, however long it takes.  Ultimately, any limited entry plan must involve an amendment to the High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan which therefore also requires the attention and involvement of the APA.

Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve believes that a well-designed, planned and implemented limited entry system into portions of the eastern High Peaks advantages everyone. The hiking public would know ahead of time and reliably that a primitive tent site or lean-to will be theirs for the night. Through their permit they could know in advance what trail and weather conditions can be anticipated.  They will know they will have a better chance than they do today to experience solitude and natural conditions. The DEC and APA will know that they are honoring their legal responsibilities under Article XIV and the State Land Master Plan. DEC will be able to transmit educational messages along with the permit and have that information absorbed by permit holders. DEC will also come to know that, over time, trash, waste, and damage to the eastern High Peaks will be reduced and resources allowed to recover. Public health and safety risks for the entire community along Rt. 73 will ease.

DEC could institute a permit system on a trial basis and evaluate its success. It will never be perfect; changes will inevitably need to be made. But, if the experiences in other wilderness areas are any guide, once hikers adapt to a limited entry system they will appreciate the opportunity to experience such a magnificent area as the High Peaks free from crowding, trash, and waste. So will the residents and town officials who live and work amidst the High Peaks region.

Photo at top: Giant Mountain with the Ausable Club below. Second photo: High Peaks Wilderness as seen from the lands of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. Photos by David Gibson.

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




38 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    “Through their permit they could know in advance what trail and weather conditions can be anticipated.” So the DEC has a crystal ball that will predict the weather and trail conditions in advance?

    “…a well-designed, planned and implemented limited entry system into portions of the eastern High Peaks advantages everyone.” Except for those who can’t predict when they will be able to go hiking due to their schedules, weather conditions, etc. It also disadvantages new and diverse hikers who do not know or understand how this “well-planned” system works and show up only to be turned away, ruining their day and probably encouraging them to go elsewhere in the future. And it disadvantages those who live in the region for the very reason that they like to get up in the morning, throw a pack on, and set off up a favorite trail whenever they feel like it.

    • Dana says:

      Who spends more money supporting food, lodging, and other tourism concerns – you or people from out of the area? If you are going to build an economy based on tourism, you have to take the good with the bad.

      • Zephyr says:

        The Adk Park isn’t a money-making enterprise. It is owned by the people of New York State, and all of them should be able to use it, whether they live in New York City, Buffalo, or Lake Placid, regardless of ability to pay or plan a trip well ahead of time, which is a luxury only afforded to some. It is not their intention, but adding more hoops to jump through is also a sure way to reduce the attraction to the new and diverse populations that many wish to attract to the mountains.

        • Dana says:

          Restrictions are not prohibitions. I can assure you local villages and businesses DO depend on tourism. In all of your broken-record whining on AA, have you ever offered an alternative? Readers and lurkers here certainly know your convenience is of the utmost importance to you.

          • Zephyr says:

            Enforce existing parking regulations to limit the number of people. Prohibit drop offs by large buses. If you have to, put the summit stewards at the beginning of the trail and prohibit entry after so many people. Enforce existing laws on trash and pollution. Repair and harden the most used trails. Permits will do none of these things. As I have stated previously, if parking regulations can’t be enforced why will permit regulations be enforced? Plus, the problem is hugely overstated. The damage is limited to very narrow corridors along a handful of major trails. Wander 50 feet off of many of these trails and you might have a tough time finding the trail again. I have stated these realistic solutions many times, but those who want illogical permits will reject them.

            • Balian the Cat says:

              Zephyr,

              I always read your comments with respect. Your position is well thought out and consistent. That said, I am simply going to go on the record and state that, in my opinion, protecting a natural resource that will require generations to bounce back if we allow it to reach an impacts tipping point outweighs the hardships it places upon people who can’t plan in advance. It outweighs the philosophical taxpayer argument – the money is well spent regardless of access – and it outweighs the “it’s only the trail foot print” argument. The problem is only overstated if one comes from the perspective of “I don’t care how many people are on the ground as long as I have access.” The benefits – to all of us – of natural areas are enormous and go way beyond the I wanna hike when I wanna hike take on things. You know as well as I that your remedies would only work in a Universe where NYSDEC had unlimited resources, staff, and time, but we don’t live in that Universe. I am not arguing for or against permits, and I seek no quarrel with you, but the reality of the situation goes beyond your stated message.

              • Zephyr says:

                So, the DEC without “unlimited resources, staff, and time” will be able to create, manage, and enforce an entirely new permit system?

                • Balian the Cat says:

                  “I am not arguing for or against permits”

                • Steve B says:

                  I’ve stated this too many times. The DEC has permit systems in place currently. They require permits for assorted uses on conservation lands on Long Island, there’s a really easy process in place to obtain one. They have on-line systems in place for fishing and hunting. You renew your drivers license and registration on-line. How hard or expensive do you think this will be ?. In reality you are just making up more lame excuses to not solve an obvious problem.

                  • Alan says:

                    There’s a HUGE difference between getting a season long hunting or fishing license and trying to pick a specific certain date that not only you but also your hiking mates can hike ahead of time. Unless you work for the state or you’re a teacher most folks don’t have any idea what days they will be available more than a few days ahead of time.

            • Eagleye says:

              “Enforce existing parking regulations to limit the number of people.”
              You mean like building another 60-car parking lot at Upper Works ?

  2. Boreas says:

    David,

    I was surprised when I read the easement document last week that it had so much emphasis on preserving the resource. It foresaw the potential for overuse and clearly stated allowance for remedies such as restriction and closure. It is truly a CONSERVATION easement. It would be interesting to see the agreements that were worked out between ADK and NYS as well.

  3. Plattsburgh Hikers says:

    The devil is in the details. Yes I hope AMR and DEC can work to run a permit program for certain weekends of the year. But if they go to far to soon, it won’t look good and just appear as if AMR is trying to exclude the public in the name of conservation but for an actual benefit to their members. Alas, something should be tried and I hope it works well with keeping decent access from that trailhead.

  4. Ed says:

    This is just the start of it , other areas of the ADKs will follow , it’s inevitable.

  5. Rick says:

    I still can’t understand how or when people got it into their head that hikers are bad for the environment. The high peaks are much better off today than when I first started hiking in the mid-80s. All of the Alpine summits are now grassy meadows instead of barren rock. All of the open garbage pits next to all the lean-tos are now fields of young birch. It’s not the number of hikers that damages the environment it’s bad practices. Even with the small percentage of people who don’t follow LNT principles the woods are much better today than forty years ago. The AMR doesn’t care about the environment either. They just care about the number of people walking through their property, probably especially the ones that don’t look like them.

    • Zephyr says:

      Exactly! I’ve been hiking in the Dacks since the ’60s, and what a difference between then and today. Trails then were often knee deep mud or else waterfalls in rainstorms. Many of us hiked in knee-high rubber boots because you had to. The summit of Marcy was used as a latrine and was covered in trash. Nobody picked up after themselves. There was an open garbage pit near every leanto. Nobody buried their poop. If there was a privy, the door or the seat was usually missing. At Marcy Dam and other places so many campers built fires that trees were stripped bare as far as you could reach. Yes, you didn’t see as many people, but the environment was trashed back then compared to today. Today’s hikers are much more environmentally aware–even the newbies.

      • just a hiker says:

        Lots of good arguments on the side of hikers. How can we fight back against all of this? Is there any way or should we just sit back and let them do what they’re going to do? My take is that the State has just allowed this to happen, they could have started re-building sustainable trails years ago, and others have stated that other ranges (NH I believe) have tons of parking. Now the parking in the High Peaks is just a ridiculous situation. I think they are seriously over-reacting and want to make everything very difficult for hikers.

  6. Charlie S says:

    Plattsburgh hiker says: ” But if they go to far to soon, it won’t look good and just appear as if AMR is trying to exclude the public in the name of conservation but for an actual benefit to their members.”

    This doesn’t make sense Plattsburgh! It seems to me they have had the right to exclude anyone from entering their property since they’ve owned it. They’ve been very generous to the public if you ask me. Why would they suddenly change course and think of their members only? They’re not! Evidently there’s a real problem here with damage being done to the resource and if it were me who owned all of that land and the same was occurring, i’d close the gates too!

    • Plattsburgh Hiker says:

      They have had the right to limit access in accordance and cooperation with DEC. Not unilaterally. This is the key. To some extent DEC must sign off on a decision.

      That’s fine if they think it’s that much a a resource degradation problem. Close it off to the public, but also lead by example and keep your members on AMR one and discourage going to the great range or DNCB. We know the latter will never happen and the public may be excluded while private members gain better solitude and unlimited access to public lands.

      All my point was saying was, there should still be access for the public. Allow the 20 cars in a permit system on busy weekends still. Don’t completely shit down the trails while allowing your members to use them.

  7. Good Camp Owner says:

    You would think since the opening line is recognizing Gwen Craig and her acute awareness to the pressure in the ADK, she would stay off the trails. On 31 August she published her account of hiking Dial and Nippletop….So the trails her for her use and her use creates no issue? The lands belong to the people of the State of New York and they all have the right to use them.

    • Steve B says:

      That’s unfair. On one hand folks are arguing there should be no limits, yet you then state she should stay home ?. Seems that Nippletop and Dix are enough off the beaten pass that writing about them is doing some good publicity.

      • Mumbles says:

        Nippletop and Dial are accessed via the AMR… Literally the place being discussed in this article…

      • Good Camp Owner says:

        Unfair? She is quoted in the article and yet the cause of overuse. I do not ask anyone to stay home, I ask every NYer to come and enjoy the land they own. Your ZIP code has nothing to do with your right to access it, nor how well you do or do not care for it. By the way Steve the information regarding Dial, not Dix and Nippletop is accessed on a map of Essex County.

  8. Charlie S says:

    Rick says: “It’s not the number of hikers that damages the environment it’s bad practices.”

    It could be both Rick, but the latter is most certainly a contributing factor as we know from experience the miseries of human nature.

  9. Charlie S says:

    “Today’s hikers are much more environmentally aware–even the newbies.”

    Yes but there’s always the few bad apples Zephyr, and nowadays there’s more than just a few of them…..and all’s it takes is a few.

  10. Tim says:

    Parks around the world experience far greater numbers than the ADK and yet, they manage. I think a key solution to “overcrowding” is trail revitalization. I’ve been on trails in Yosemite, Zion, and Grand Canyon with much greater traffic and the trails are not eroded, rock-hopping, wet messes like the popular trails here.
    The work done on the 9N Hurricane Trail is a perfect case in point.
    One might think it’s a daunting task but most of the trails in the Park are fine. It’s just the 46 and not even all of them.

    • Eagleye Nye says:

      Tim: I’ve done a lot of hiking in those areas, and many of them do require permits, especially Yosemite, Muir Trail, sections of PCT, Grand Canyon (for overnights) etc. While it can seem a pain at times, it does enhance the quality of ones experience.

  11. Eagleye Nye says:

    And maybe, just maybe, if a permit system were in place, the fees could help pay for the numerous and ever-increasing “rescues” DEC Rangers have to respond to. And perhaps, that (fees, fines?) would make people think a little more about being better prepared and call for help only in real emergencies.

  12. Pablo Rodriguez says:

    The staff at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR)/Ausable Club has always been opposed to public use, especially the fake ranger, so this is likely a ploy to do what they wanted to do all along.

  13. Zephyr says:

    So instead of arguing in circles for or against hypothetical permits, lets hear from proponents how a “well-designed, planned and implemented limited entry system into portions of the eastern High Peaks” will work. Can’t be just parking permits, because the proponents already say those are unenforceable. Will it just be limited entry at certain trailheads? What will prevent people from bushwhacking around the trailhead? Or approaching the summit via a different trail? Will it be limited by day, by hour, or by what? Will there be a cost for a permit? How much? Who will pay for the creation of the system, the maintenance, the customer service? What will the costs be? Who will enforce the permits, and how? Etc. Etc.

  14. Adkresident says:

    The membership voted to keep the stinky hikers off the land. If they were so concerned they would remove their buildings and make it forever wild.

  15. Ronnie says:

    I think the key is education. Lots of people are getting out into the outdoors right now for the first time and don’t know how to use the backcountry in a responsible way, LNT ethics, etc. It’s all too easy to say we’d rather they just stayed home, but I think it’s clear that isn’t a viable solution. As other have pointed out, it’s unenforceable without greater DEC resources which they say they don’t have. Keep the backcountry as unrestricted as possible, maintain trails and areas that see heavy use, educate visitors on LNT ethics.

    It’s a real shame to me that you’d have to get a reserved spot to get outside and experience this area.

  16. Joan Grabe says:

    I think we have hit a stumbling block as to conservation easements – greatly touted in the past. The AMR has the right to ask the DEC for permission to prohibit public access across their lands. I suspect that it was a tax issue initially but now, with overuse, it has created a problem for this private entity. The DEC will probably agree because they do not have the resources to protect the easement. But there are so many mountains and trails here in the park and, even with the mystique of the “46”, so many places to get back to nature. Like many of the people who commented previously I, too, have used permits to access National Parks, wilderness camps etc. The system works – the kinks get worked out. Besides, winter is coming, the kids are back at school and some leaves have turned and are falling off ! As with so many other “ crises “ in the Adirondacks we can kick this particular can down the road !

  17. Paul says:

    What the AMR and all of its wealthy members (some prominent leaders on the environmental front included) would like is for it to be the way it was in the distant past. No one can come across their land. Their claim for parking limits was not about damage, they said they were concerned with spread of Covid-19. Is there ANY evidence that this is really a problem? They probably got rid of the “hiker” bus years ago in hopes that having to shlep down the road would discourage people – that didn’t work.

  18. Nate says:

    Even if a permit system is introduced we still would need to add a couple thousand parking spaces beforehand. Whatever they establish as the right number it’s well beyond the paltry 900 or so parking spaces we have now for the HPs. Go look at the acres and acres of parking available around the presidential range in N.H. One lot there, say Pinkham Notch is bigger than all of our parking spaces combined. And the highland center and Amanoosic lots are almost just as big. The first time I went to Lincoln Woods I was insane with jealousy over their ample parking. Let’s add parking first and go from there.

  19. Todd Eastman says:

    It’s folly to attempt to manage a resource like the HPWA as a “Wilderness.”

    Yes, it can be wild, can kick your ass, and even kill people, but, running it as a Wilderness Area, and trying to do it on the cheap has made a bad situation.

    Permits are unlikely to improve the situation. The resource becomes further commodified through making access scarce.

    Put serious money into the ranger staffing and trail crews before wanking on about permits…

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