On this 2020 Columbus Day weekend, peak use of parts of the High Peaks and Giant Mountain Wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park were again exceeded. Now is the time to consider a permit reservation or limited entry system for key points of entry into these wilderness areas as necessary, helpful, practical, and practicable.
Adirondack Wild is concerned with a spate of recent comments made to North Country Public Radio that our NYS DEC is not ready to launch a limited entry or permit reservation system. Of course, DEC is not ready right now. They have not been given any direction from the Governor and the DEC Commissioner to get and be ready. Given such a direction and expectation, DEC could be ready in summer and fall of 2021. DEC is fully capable of studying, gaining public input, designing, and implementing with partners a fair and effective limited entry pilot program next year.
Public attitudes appear to be changing. Given the obvious crowding and pressures on wilderness resources in the High Peaks region, recent polls suggest that many are ready to support pilot testing of reservations or limited entry into a truly limited resource, which are our Forest Preserve Wilderness areas. We are not making more wilderness. However, there are more and more of human users of wilderness. That resource is clearly being degraded in portions of the High Peaks and Giant Mountain areas. A well-designed limited entry system on currently crowded hiking corridors, used in combination with a comprehensive information and educational campaign, can be an effective management tool here, just as it is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many other wilderness regions of the country.
For example, in the Great Smoky Mountains, backcountry users obtain a reservation online with 24/7 access. That reservation system allows users to view interior capacity and availability for backcountry campsites. According to that National Park’s website, the system permits reservations at any time starting 30 days in advance, with maximum flexibility for those making last minute plans. Users of the system can get backcountry planning assistance from park staff, advice on Leave No Trace hiking and camping and with understanding regulations. In addition, that system has the capability to notify permit holders of site closures, safety issues and other emergency conditions via email and text messaging prior to beginning a trip.
Our State DEC personnel are very familiar with the benefits of this and other examples of limited entry reservation systems being used around the country. During a Keene Valley Stakeholder Meeting in summer 2019, DEC staff demonstrated a keen awareness of a limited entry program in the designated wilderness areas of Oregon’s Cascade Range. That one and all examples around the country vary due to their own circumstances. All these systems require periodic reexamination and improvement. All limited entry systems require a comprehensive informational and enforcement element.
Because the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan legally requires the consideration of reservation systems if indirect methods of management are not effective in controlling overuse, DEC staff began to intensively consider such a system for the High Peaks as far back as 1974. The evidence of that work is contained in the 1978 draft High Peaks Unit Management Plan, where a range of limited entry alternatives are discussed as key tools in managing overuse of the wilderness.
Finally, twenty years later in 1999 the adopted High Peaks UMP, still in effect, directs the creation of a permit reservation working group to study and deliver its recommendations to the DEC Commissioner, with an expectation that such a system would be put into effect within five years. Unfortunately, this UMP recommendation has been effectively ignored for 20 years, not because it is impractical or not needed but because of resistance to the very idea of limiting access to the High Peaks.
I sense that resistance is starting to rapidly break down. It’s little wonder, given the extremely high levels of overuse and damage seen every day, risks to public health and safety, and the great stress being placed on DEC and private personnel every day, especially the Forest Rangers, Assistant Forest Rangers and Summit Stewards.
Given crucial political support from Governor Andrew Cuomo, there is no earthly reason why DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos could not pull together the staff, the partners, planning expertise and the resources in 2021 to pilot test a limited entry program for designated, heavily used points of entry into the High Peaks, such as the Adirondack Mountain Club’s trailheads to Marcy Dam and to Mounts Marcy, Colden and Algonquin. Ready to benefit from a limited entry permit and educational program are a better informed, prepared and satisfied hiking and camping public, greater opportunities to experience solitude and naturalness, less pressure and damage to trails and natural resources, and higher levels of compliance with the Unit Management and State Land Master Plan Wilderness guidelines.
Crowded conditions along Rte. 73, High Peaks Wilderness region. Photo by Ken Rimany for Adk Wild