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.
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.