Sunday, October 4, 2020

Hiker Permits? Turns out we’ve been there before

Over the past few years, articles in the Adirondack Almanack, Adirondack Explorer, and other  media outlets, in addition to posts on blogs and social media, has made quite apparent the issues facing the High Peaks Wilderness related to hiking and backpacking.

Matters of hiker education, the ever-increasing number of search-and-rescues, an overly strained and understaffed force of  Forest Rangers, parking, and litter have been brought to the forefront of the public’s attention.

A  variety of solutions have been proposed by groups such as the Adirondack Mountain Club  (ADK), Adirondack Council, and the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG).  A hiker permit system is one of the proposed solutions. In contrast to other articles regarding  hiker permits, this one does not opine on the merits of such, but to make readers aware that they were once implemented in the Adirondacks – albeit at a very small scale.

While researching the history of Jenkins Mountain at Paul Smiths, I came across an article in the  May 18, 1995 edition of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about a plan to build a trail to the peak.  Paul Smiths VIC also planned to implement a hiker permit system for the trail – the first ever  within the Adirondack Park.

According to Mike Brennan, who headed the development of the  trail, there were two reasons why management wanted a permit system. First, to prevent  considerable degradation of a virgin trail by a rush of hikers. This concern came, in part, from  the usage seen on the Floodwood Mountain trail, whose soils and slope of the trail were similar  to those of the Jenkins Mountain trail; the trail was recently revamped and reopened. Second, as  the new trail was not in the Forest Preserve, it gave the VIC the opportunity to use the trail as an  experimental “lab” in which to gauge the public’s response to a permit system. As the  spokeswoman for the VIC, Ann Milious, said, “We are aware of concerns about carrying  capacity and over-use. We said ‘Let’s examine the permit issue and gauge the public reaction.  Let’s see if this inconveniences hikers or if they appreciate the permit system.’”

Putting the program in place

Development of the trail to Jenkins Mountain was the project of Brennan, who worked for  the APA as an Adirondack Park Naturalist. The APA operated the VIC at the time until 2010,  when Paul Smith’s College took over operations. Work on the trail was started in the spring of  1995 primarily by Paul Smith’s students, under the supervision of Hans Michielen of  the college. Given that the trail was being built on land leased from the college, this precluded the need for a lengthy review of the proposed trail by the State. The route for the trail  was selected based on drainage and included incremental gains in elevation to prevent trail  erosion. When completed, Brennan hiked the trail with DEC personnel for feedback, who  agreed the trail was sound; this was the DEC’s only involvement in the project. By June 24th, the  trail was open to the public, albeit on a limited basis due to the VIC’s permit system.

The VIC’s hiking permit system limited the number of hikers on the Jenkins Mountain trail to 20 per day, with permits offered from late spring to Columbus Day. Half of the permits  would be available for advanced reservations, and the other half would be available through the  VIC on a first-come, first-serve basis at the desk. Group size was restricted to 10 people, and the trail was closed during mud season.

Hikers were asked to fill out a questionnaire on the  back of their permit, the answers to which would give the VIC the opportunity to gauge the public’s response to the permit system. As Brennan explained, “At the time we believed that the  VIC should be a place for both innovation and education in making a best effort in protection  and use of [Adirondack Park] resources.” The VIC also sought to define “social carrying capacity,” that is, how many people can one encounter on the trail before their backcountry experience is spoiled?

Results and feedback

What follows are the results of the first season of the hiking permit experiment at the VIC,  announced by the APA and as reported in the February 23, 1996 edition of The Lake Placid  News:

  • Permits were issued to 207 parties representing 534 individuals over the course of a 108‐day permit season
  • 165 permit holders answered the questions on their permits.  Of those,
    • 83% said the permit system had no impact or a positive impact on their hike.  Respondents said there was a sense of solitude, better trail conditions, and increased wildlife observation
    • 7% said the permit system had a negative impact, explaining that they had to plan ahead
  • The 20 hikers‐per‐day limit was met on seven occasions, and the 10 person‐per‐day advanced registration capacity was achieved on 27 occasions.
  • Ranking of the importance of unrestricted access to the backcountry, solitude in the backcountry, keeping the backcountry unspoiled for future generations, and implementation of guidelines to protect natural places:
    • 79% said unrestricted access to the backcountry was “very important”
    • 43% said solitude in the backcountry was “very important”
    • 89% said keeping the backcountry unspoiled for future generations was “very important”
    • 85% said the implementation of guidelines to protect natural places was “very important”

∙ Demographics of respondents:

  • 50% were residents of northern New York (north to the Canadian border and west to Watertown)
  • 25% were New York State residents outside of the northern New York region
  • 16% were from outside New York State
  • 6% did not provide a home address

In 1996, VIC Director Ed Lynch stated that the VIC staff “outlined low-impact techniques both verbally and in writing [to hikers], and answered individual questions. That is the kind of education process that a permit system allows.” When hikers had to be turned away, the VIC staff and volunteers were prepared to provide directions to other hiking trails. When advanced reservations for a given day were filled, staff and volunteers offered alternate dates.

Permit program discontinued

The VIC continued the hiking permit system in 1996, which would be its final year. The VIC’s disbanding of the system hardly made the news. As manager of the VIC when the permit system  was in place, Brennan helped shed light on why it was discontinued:

“By the end of the second year of the permit system we found that demand for permits hardly ever exceeded the limit. With minor adjustments, the trail had held up well under the ongoing level of use. This meant that use-limiting permits were not needed to protect the resource. Additionally, by then we had enough permit survey data to  accomplish the second part of gaging public response to the notion of hiking permits and our  system for distribution. At this time, I recommended to the director that it was time to discontinue the permit system and this recommendation was accepted.”

Today’s trail use

Almost 25 years later, how much foot traffic does the Paul Smiths VIC trail system  (including the Jenkins Mountain trail) see? Are there erosion and litter concerns akin to those  reported for the enormously popular High Peaks region? To answer these questions, I contacted  Andy Testo, General Manager of the VIC, who provided the following insights:

  • The number of visitors to the VIC trail system is kept track of at the front desk, which significantly undercounts the number of visitors. With precautions taken for COVID-19  this year, the VIC moved their front desk outside of the VIC building. With this change, they witnessed that a statistically significant portion of their visitors did not approach the desk but instead went to the trailhead kiosks and maps for information.
  • On their busiest days, the VIC trail system “far exceeds” 300 people. However, Testo  says that this is “sufficient and under carrying capacity for our parking lots, and trail system length.”
  • The VIC trail system, in most cases, has not experienced serious erosion or litter  concerns. However, the erosion and litter seen was not unexpected, given that the trail  system sees approximately 25,000 visitors annually. In regard to the erosion issues,  Testo said that these “are due to omissions in trail design – or social paths to scenic spots  or areas of curiosity that are just off designated paths.”
  • The Jenkins Mountain trail is an exception. Although the mountain is hiked regularly, it  is significantly less popular than other mountains in the region outside of Paul Smiths.  Brennan echoed this, saying “since [Jenkins Mountain is] not on anyone’s ‘er’ list it isn’t that popular.” Testo noted that the Jenkins Mountain trail hardly ever exceeds 20 hikers daily.
  • The VIC trail system is busiest on weekends, holiday weeks, school vacations and  summer breaks, during the leaf-peeping days of fall, and in the winter for snowshoeing  and skiing. July 4th through Labor Day is “uniformly busy,” according to Testo. The Boreal Life, Barnum Brook, and Marsh Trails, which are the shorter trails, are the most  popular.
Key takeaways?

Given this historical precedent for hiker permits, the question is: are there lessons learned from the VIC’s experiment which could be applied today (especially in the High Peaks region)? As someone who has spent over 10 years as an avid hiker of the Adirondacks, nine years doing trail maintenance and three years with the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Trailhead Steward Program, I had to ponder this. The VIC’s permit system was of such a small scale that 20 permits would not accommodate the number of hikers I have seen arriving at the Cascade Mountain trailhead within 10 minutes!

How do we draw that fine line between the popularity of many Adirondack trails  and limiting the number of hikers to protect the resource? The metric of “carrying capacity” may not be a constant but one that various from region to region, if not trail to trail. Should hiker education facilities/outreach centers be established along heavily-trafficked corridors? There are many, many questions involved, and it is not possible for me to touch upon them. If this  article is used in an examination of the hiker permit issue, then it has served its purpose beyond being just a historical FYI.

Photos: View of Upper St Regis and Spitfire Lakes and view of St Regis Mountain from the summit of Jenkins Mountain. Courtesy of John Sasso.

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John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.

35 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    Stop trying to make permits happen and just give us a
    Safe place park to park. For the love of god. Even if you instituted a permit system you’d still first have to add a couple thousand parking spaces make it remotely workable. Just add the damn parking.

  2. Gary Hartwick says:

    Can’t say that we are at all in favor of permits, but we do favor having those that hike and paddle in the Park post say a $50,000 bond in case they have to be rescued. The Park seems like a really great deal for those that live and play there as they get to pass the tremendous cost on to the taxpayers of the State of New York, most of whom rarely or never go to the Adirondacks. Thus it seems to us that there needs to be a way to pass that cost on to the businesses in the Park. They can in turn pass it on to their customers, the users of the Park. The State making payments for property that it owns in the Adirondacks also needs to be looked at. It doesn’t seem to be a great deal for many of the taxpayers. The costs need to get allocated to those that are benefiting.

    • Eric says:

      The state just paid for a new Tappan Zee bridge that most of us upstate will never once lay eyes on yet alone use. Why is that ok but paying for some Adirondack infrastructure and safety is not?

      • Steve B. says:

        Obviously a few million people will use the TZ – sorry, Cuomo bridge over a few years, while many, many fewer will visit the Adirondacks, so the bridge serves a greater good. As well the old TZ was about to fall into the Hudson, so no choice – no problem. Lot of shenanigans with this bridge as well, Cuomo got caught trying to take $500 million out of federal environmental funds to help pay for it, the courts said NO. I’m not sure there was aver a full accounting as to how the bridge is getting paid for. Likely huge tolls.

    • Zephyr says:

      In other words, only those who are rich should be allowed to experience the Adirondacks. God forbid people of lesser means should want to go hiking.

  3. Smitty says:

    Instead of a complicated permit system, why not just meter all the popular trailheads. Make it expensive enough to pay for trail maintenance, patrols, and the occasional rescue. People that dont want to pay can take a hikers shuttle. Otherwise, you pay for convenience and you pay proportionately to the amount of use. Carpoolers and families receive a built in discount. A permit would presumably cost the same whether you hike one day or one hundred. It’s really not much different than National Park entrance fees or the ADK parking lot. Casual uses that could just as well be on other trails would have a disincentive. Simple and fair and less tax burden but would provide a dependable revenue stream.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      How much would becoming a 46er cost? ?

    • Aaron says:

      It is different than the National Park entrance fees because the groundwork had already been done to justify the fee at those locations. Well-marked properly constructed trails with ample parking, amenities, infrastructure, and rangers. That doesn’t sound anything close to what we currently have in the HPW area.

  4. Good Camp Owner says:

    One article, one system, one peak with the staff and/or support system in place to implement the system for less than two years is insight into (fill in the blank.) This is NYS property and available for use by anyone, from anywhere at anytime. Ask Johnny how many permits he has obtained in his extensive ADK experience? The answer is zero and that’s how many the rest of us are going to obtain.

    • Boreas says:

      Bluster in the face of facts. BECAUSE it is NYS property, DEC has the obligation to protect it.

      From the DEC website:

      Core Services: (Caps mine)

      Provide opportunities for enjoying the outdoors, including fishing, hunting, camping, and hiking.

      Provide permits/licenses/registrations to businesses, government agencies and individuals for activities WHICH IMPACT THE ENVIRONMENT.

      Investigate environmental issues.

      Educate people on how to better protect the environment.

      • Tom says:

        I hardly think that when that was written that people HIKING on foot was an activity WHICH IMPACTS THE ENVIRONMENT. That’s more for large scale gatherings or things such as military exercises and whatnot.

        • Steve B. says:

          The DEC itself was formed in 1970, from the Conservation Dept. By ’74 they were aware that heavy hiker traffic was causing environmental damage with sever trail over-use. The trail from Marcy Dam to Indian Falls was at one point in that period, 3 different and adjacent trails. They would open one for a season, letting the 2 others recover. It was obvious then what damage overuse was causing and there were talks of permits. 45 years later they still talk.

  5. Tim says:

    Good trail refurbishing is key. Hurricane from 9N is a good example.

  6. Big Burly says:

    As with so many of Mr. Sasso’s writings … thoughtful, thought provoking and informative. Thanks

    • Doug says:

      I agree. All of John’s writings are thorough and well researched. I found this one to be detailed and fact based. It is a great look back into a small portion of the VIC’s history. Based on the comments here it would appear that without offering an opinion on permitting John has stimulated the discussion.
      John, your writings are always worth reading, thanks for taking the time to share your work with us. Perhaps you should publish a compilation of some of these.

      • John Sasso says:

        Thank you, Doug and Big Burly, for the kind words and appreciation. I see that my article has gotten a bit of attention and stimulated debate.

        Doug, I suppose when I retire many years from now I will have time to compile these things into a book 🙂

  7. James Marco says:

    Yes, 100 hikers that do not leave any trace of themselves other than footprints, are not as bad as a single hiker that simply doesn’t give a damn. Why punish everyone?

    In the HP areas permits limiting the number of people are necessary. In the Five Ponds Area, it isn’t needed. Every area will need individual treatment.

    Parking areas need to be marked and checked each day. If a vehicle is found out of the marked parking area, it should be towed at the owners expense within 24 hours.

    A simple Sportsman License will cover camping. In the event of out of state or out of country, some fee will be required.

    This is NOT difficult. And as the article points out, the vast majority of people are in favor of it, well, at least the *benefits* of a permit system.

  8. Brian says:

    The only way you can control hiker access broadly speaking is to control car access (at least in car-dependent North America). That’s how national parks do it. That’s how state and provincial parks do it. And that’s how the VIC did it when they implemented their permitting system.

    You can’t really control car access into the High Peaks due to the fact that the all trailheads – minus those at the AMR and Adirondak Loj – have parking on public property.

    By my count, there are about 20 trailheads in the HPWA outside of those two locations. Since you can’t control car access, you’d need to station a ranger at each of those 20 locations to effectively implement a permitting system. And we all know how badly understaffed the rangers corps already is without this task.

    So even if it’s a good idea in theory, how do you implement it? There will never be support for a permitting system until these real world details are added to the grand philosophical theory.

    • Steve B. says:

      All you need is one or two Rangers checking for permits, randomly at different trailheads for a busy weekend. Give out a number of $250 tickets and word gets out. You do not need constant enforcement, just occasional. This works in places where the DEC has permit systems in place.

      • Aaron says:

        And who is responsible for administering those tickets? The DEC, state troopers, town justices? Is that what we want our already stretched resources doing, chasing down scofflaws? As for the word-of-mouth impact, it sure might have an effect. It could drive away visitors by the tens-of-thousands, killing businesses already creaking under the strain of the pandemic. No, permits are not YET needed, not so long as infrastructure and resources are at 1980s levels. Solve those issues first then implementing a cost of entry can be justified.

  9. ADKscott says:

    Some years ago there was a sort of system in the high peaks where you got a hang card, or tag, to attach to your pack… was called a permit.

    What was learned from that experience? Does anyone recall the details?

    • Zephyr says:

      It was a fiasco. The tickets were for self-issue, but at busy trailheads they were all gone most of the time so half the time you couldn’t be compliant even if you wanted to. Plus, having a dangling tag tied to your pack didn’t work too well–I picked them up all day long while hiking busy trails. There was next to no enforcement.

      • Aaron says:

        All of what Zephyr says is true and more. You could never find a tag in the registers because people were actively removing them or burning them. There was (and mostly still remains) a strong aversion to needing a permission slip to walk on your own land (on trails many of us helped build/maintain) and having to tell the government you were somewhere particular on such and such a day.

        • Steve B. says:

          And yet you sign in at the register. You WANT somebody to know where you are heading, in case they need to come looking for you, so how hard is this ?. Maybe a new rule. You don’t sign any register ’cause God forbid, you don’t want the FBI to know you went hiking, well OK, we are not wasting Ranger resources to come look for you.

          • Aaron says:

            That’s not how Trail registers work. They just want your phone number and route so they can call everyone else on Trail that day in case someone is reported missing by some other means. Half the time I sign in as “TRAILNAME/party of 5/My real phone number”

  10. r. b. says:

    Permits are required by law. This has not been enforced for years. If re-established, the self-issuing process could include the education piece

    (2) In addition to the requirements of paragraph (1) of this subdivision, no overnight camper in the Eastern High Peaks Zone shall fail to possess a self-issuing permit:
    (i) acquire a self-issuing permit whenever passing a department registration facility; and
    (ii) possess such permit during the duration of their stay in the Eastern High Peaks Zone.

  11. ADKscott says:

    I”m glad you al recall some of the details. It stuck me as not a serious effort at the time. And it was dropped, forgotten, fairly quickly. But going back to learn what the goals were, why it was done, then why it was dropped would be a good thing to do before launching some new effort. We failed to do this before, so what could be different now?

    I have read or heard about legal challenges to permits based on the language of Article 14. Again, I’ll ask others who know more to comment on the legal issues, but I don’t think it is a clean easy argument. Like so many things here, lawyers will get involved in this decision.

  12. Carl Heilman says:

    We need to compare with places that receive hiker and vehicle traffic like the 73 corridor – like in the Smokies, Acadia, Monadnock and others. Trail maintenance, parking, safety measures and enforcerment that are required there to handle the numbers of people looking for access.

  13. Tim says:

    It’s simple. Just install an EZ Pass portal at exit 30 and whatever exits Canadians use.

    • Zephyr says:

      “Simple” to build an EZ Pass portal? Have you seen those things? I’ve been watching some gradually be erected over the Berkshire Spur on I90 and so far the project is probably 6 months in and they still aren’t operating. I can’t imagine what the cost must be. In any case, there will be no funding for any new permit system when the state is billions of dollars in the hole with its budget.

  14. Boreas says:

    Permitting discussions, at least in the EHPW, are occurring 30-40 years too late. DEC needs to accept the fact that they dropped the ball with passive limited access relying on parking lot size. Local governments didn’t want limitations on revenue. Several state administrations didn’t care. The horse is out of the barn.

    As far as I am concerned, WRT the EHPW, the discussion shouldn’t be about permitting and whether or not it would work, but rather the EHPW needs to be treated for what is has become – a high-use, high impact hiking area. This will never be compatible with a Wilderness classification. To me, the discussion is how do we protect the REST of the Park from becoming the HPW.

    To do this, the EHPW (and perhaps the entire HPW) first needs to be re-classified as a high-impact area. Then, trunk trails need to be heavily re-routed, modified, hardened, graded, and paved with stone dust wherever possible to avoid erosion and “widening” (think Federal trails). Trail maintenance will be much more effective and efficient with the use of electric power tools and vehicles when necessary and contract labor. Primitive comfort facilities can be added, as well as manned aid stations during busy months. Access by emergency ATV should be available for most of the trail network. I would also suggest Day Use Only during the busy months. Trails should be re-routed away from private property trailheads where necessary if desired. Once the improved trails can handle the capacity, and only then, enlarge parking areas where possible and start the shuttle systems. The more the merrier – just like a ski area.

    But this would ONLY be specific trails within the EHPW. The remainder of the HPW and surrounding Wilderness areas would still be hardened as necessary, but parking and shuttles would be based on carrying capacities of an actual Wilderness-classified area – yet to be determined by DEC. We don’t have to turn the entire HPW into an extensive use playground – just the most popular area(s).

    We are long past the point we can set the clock back 60 years in the HPW, but we certainly can keep other Wilderness and Primitive areas of the Park protected. But pushing people out of the HPW into these more primitive areas would be a mistake. The reason the EHPW is beyond saving as a Wilderness is because it has become extremely popular in the last 30 years and this popularity was left unchecked. Let’s keep it popular and accessible while keeping the remainder of the Park primitive and wild. Limiting access to the most popular area of the Park will only spread the problem of high usage throughout the Park.

    • Aaron says:

      Well stated, but I think you’re underselling what’s needed in the EHPW. Allowing proper and faster trail development through the use of power tools would do FAR MORE to address concerns about “overuse” and erosion than any permit system could. Cutting off access based on current conditions to this area is a non-starter – it will kill local businesses, erode the tax base, and drive prospective visitors away. Your blueprint is much wiser and realistic, though I don’t quite understand why trail development and expanded parking can’t go hand in hand.

    • Doug says:

      That’s thinking out of the box.

  15. Dorothy says:

    I think New York State should have a license to go into the woods and hiking just as there is hunting permits. It would give the State a money that would help maintain the woods

  16. Dorothy says:

    I think New York State should have a license to go into the woods and hiking just as there is hunting permits. It would give the State a money that would help maintain the woods