Friday, March 19, 2021

HPAG Report: Impacts to Wilderness and Ecology

This is the second article in a series examining the final report of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Group (HPAG) that outlines a plan to build a new and improved management program for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex. This article focuses on recommendations and ideas in the “Impacts to Wilderness and Ecology” section of the HPAG report. It’s important to note that the recommendations discussed below are predicated on the state embarking on a “secondary planning process” that HPAG recommends be organized by some kind of formal, longstanding “Adirondack Advisory Group” (AAG) that is named by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This advisory group is central to the HPAG report. Without it, the plan dissolves.

HPAG envisions that the AAG membership includes a much broader Adirondack-wide representation than that of the HPAG. This diverse, multi-stakeholder group is supposed to carry forward the report’s recommendations in coordination with state agencies but at the same time remain independent so that it can hold state agencies accountable. HPAG wants this group staffed and funded. That’s a pretty tall order in Cuomoworld.

Of course, HPAG is a creature of the DEC, so it continued the unfortunate pattern of walking all over the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). Section 801 of the APA Act states that one primary purpose of the APA is “to focus the responsibility for developing long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide concern.” Given the high use of the High Peaks Wilderness it’s clearly an issue of statewide concern. In creating the Keene-centric HPAG, the DEC failed to do honor this directive from the APA Act. Unfortunately, the DEC and HPAG probably concluded that the APA is simply unable to provide coherent and ambitious park-wide leadership at present. The Cuomo years have not been good for the APA as an institution.

The report states, “It is essential to establish a management plan to protect the resources and ecology of the High Peaks region,” and the AAG would be the lead group to organize this plan. It appears that HPAG envisions that a comprehensive plan be developed that guides a reformed management effort for the High Peaks Wilderness and associated areas that is outside of the formal Unit Management Plan (UMP) structure.

HPAG’s specific recommendations in the “Impacts to Wilderness and Ecology” section start with immediate actions for things where approvals have already been granted, like actions from the 1999 High Peaks Wilderness UMP and 2018 UMP amendments that were authorized but never implemented. Other immediate action concerns trail maintenance and improvements, increasing the numbers of Forest Rangers and stewards, and invasive species control work in addition to the UMP items.

HPAG also, wisely, starts with budget issues. HPAG calls for greater funding right upfront. There appears to be little hope for a boost in Forest Ranger numbers in the current state budget, which means another year with the dream of more Forest Rangers in the Adirondacks denied or delayed or deferred. Still, there may be opportunities to greatly expand the number of seasonal “stewards” who provide public education both at the trailheads and in the backcountry. In the past, these stewards were managed by the Town of Keene and the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute. There may be opportunities, beginning in the 2021 hiking summer hiking season, to organize educational stewards.

The next recommendations in this section deal with DEC staffing. HPAG calls for an “Area Manager” for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex (HPWC) to be named, who is assisted by Assistant Area Managers, who are conceived to have a real presence in the field. Such a manager was a recommendation in the 1999 High Peaks Wilderness UMP too. I thought that the DEC already had a HPWC Manager, who in recent years designed and has supervised the construction of the new sustainable hiking trails to Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade and Porter Mountains, supervised the last three years of DEC’s High Peaks Trail Crew, and other crews that work in the High Peaks, designed and supervised the new trail from Route 9 up Hurricane Mountain, and took the lead in drafting the 2018 High Peaks Wilderness UMP amendment. The existing High Peaks Wilderness manager’s work would benefit immensely from the help of “Assistant Area Managers.”

HPAG calls for more funding and staffing “to ensure DEC and partners have the ability to address current and future challenges in the High Peaks region.” There’s encouraging signs in the positioning and negotiations in new state budget for 2021-22 for funding, but it likely will not include new permanent staff at the DEC.

HPAG sees that a “High Peaks Wilderness and Recreation Management Plan” needs a solid foundation with staffing, funding, and an organized Adirondack Advisory Group. The report urges the DEC to “Empower the recommended AAG to guide and participate in development and implementation of a holistic and comprehensive Wilderness and Recreation Management Plan, mirroring successful efforts done on other public lands.” HPAG lists “critical elements” that it sees as vital action items in this planning process. These are:

1: “Recruit an expert third-party facilitator (such as the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics or the NPS Conservation Institute) to facilitate the development of the Wilderness Management Plan.” As mentioned in the last article, we in the Adirondacks have not done a very good job at utilizing outside expertise. We think that because we have inherited a 128-year-old park and the 125-year-old forever wild Forest Preserve, and we have the 50-year old regional land use program, that we’re a model for everybody to emulate and learn from. The reality is, of course, that we have much to learn from the rest of the world about public lands management.

2: “Be well-funded and have sufficient resources to engage this process over the necessary two plus years of work.” As mentioned above, this will be a tall order. One way to ensure that an effort fails to underfund it. Both the State Senate and State Assembly recently published 1-house budgets that each, in different ways, designated funding that could be used for High Peaks Complex management and planning. A final budget is expected at the end of March.

3: “Follow established protocols for community conservation planning, including wide stakeholder engagement, transparency, and agreed-upon conservation deliverables and outcomes.” Transparency is the most important thing here. We’re not talking about national security secrets in High Peaks planning, so there’s no reason that AAG meetings should be closed to the public. The APA Board meets in public meetings and holds in-depth discussions. The AAG should be able to do this too.

4: “Establish thresholds for the High Peaks region consistent with complex planning.” These thresholds should be documented and public along with monitoring protocols.

Much of the future management of the High Peaks Wilderness is going to involve counting things and assessing things. Right now, in the High Peaks Wilderness Complex, and across the Forest Preserve, we’re not very good at counting much of anything beyond campsites and lean-tos. The trailhead register data for the High Peaks trailheads are a shambles. The recent Debar Mountain Complex UMP had a chart riddled with partial or blank data for major trailhead registers in the unit.

Counting things, like hikers, parking spaces, pit privies, port-a-johns, trailhead stewards, trailside flora, hikers educated, campers, among many other things, is important because it allows for an assessment of baseline conditions and an evaluation of change over time. From this research interventions can be planned for when conditions reach a certain point, or “threshold.” The challenge in moving ahead is how to build a new comprehensive monitoring program for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex and the Forest Preserve. The challenges go beyond the nuts and bolts and how to design such a program and the acute challenge of how to fund its implementation and sustain it over many years. One major challenge is that our state agencies that manage the Forest Preserve fear accountability.

HPAG set out examples of various indicators that could be used in a comprehensive monitoring program. To study the HPWC “ecological complex” HPAG provided examples of useful indicators, such as ecological integrity, disturbance zones, wildlife corridors, invasive species/vectors and climate resilience. There are many others too. Physical indicators included soil, vegetation, Alpine vegetation, water, air and wildlife. Aesthetic indicators included remoteness (distance from roads or human-made facilities), solitude, noise/natural quiet, light/natural darkness, and air/drone traffic.

HPAG sets out important initial goals to begin the work of improving HPMC management. We need a permanent, diverse group that’s staffed and funded, and independent from state agencies to move this process forward. This group will take the lead in drafting a new comprehensive HPWC management plan. This plan will include establishing a long-term monitoring program for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex, which could be used in other Forest Preserve units as well. These recommendations are cornerstones for Forest Preserve management reform efforts.

This is the second article in a series on the HPAG report. Click here for this first article that looks at the HPAG final report and its guiding principles and overall recommendations.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

6 Responses

  1. JB says:

    Peter, once again, you have written an excellent article. It is amazing to think about how many people are still out there who care about preserving the Park, in contrast to how apathetic local government has been at times.

    The creation of a Park-wide AAG is certainly a great insight that came out of this–the Park is an interconnected system and its issues, from overcrowding to ecological problems, must be treated holistically. And establishing both a baseline understanding of the current state of affairs and clearly delineated conservation goals is important and requires funding. But, in doing that, there is still a danger of degrading the ecology and character of the Park, which no amount of funding or management can nullify. In managing visitor use more proactively, we must be careful not to fall further into the trap that DEC has already become party to: building ever more trails and facilities without great regard for current (non)use or ecological effect. We need to build infrastructure where it is necessary to prevent greater harm, but we must maintain that balance. On the other hand, in developing an ecological knowledge-base and planning, we must not fall into the perilous trap that we have seen in the over-management of other preserves worldwide: the type of over-management that is apparent in the conspicuous heavy-handed species reintroductions and tree implantation and over-eager wildlife monitoring that results in, for example, certain National Parks being turned into science experiments full of radio-collared mammals rather than true bona-fide preservation efforts. The absence of that feeling of the “over-curated experience” is one of the truly magnificent features that distinguishes the Adirondack Park from its counterparts. There is a tendency for both government and non-government actors to want to get their hands all over everything, but, as I see it, attaining a Park management that acts more as a mediator between protected wilderness and the people who come to enjoy it, rather than a curator or an enabler, is a difficult but supreme goal to strive for. These are just the humble observations of a fellow Park resident. Keep up the good work.

  2. Tony Goodwin says:

    I will not deny that we still have problems in managing use of the High Peaks. The most obvious problem, of course, is parking at popular trailheads. The secondary problem is the inability to have enough educators/enforcers available to prevent the “newbies” from doing damage to the resource.

    Peter did call for a baseline study of today’s conditions, and this could be useful going forward. However, a baseline study of the High Peaks Wilderness Area when it was so designated, 59 years-ago in 1972, would show significant improvement in the condition of the resource. It was only in 1970 that the DEC first invoked the “Carry it in, Carry it out” ethic. Soon the lean-to garbage pits were closed, and the campsite trash cans at Lake Colden were removed. By 1980, the DEC had started to designate sustainable campsites away from water and had limited camping groups to nine unless that group obtained a permit for a group up to fifteen. The limits have become stricter since, but before there were groups of 40 regularly camping in the High Peaks.

    Meanwhile, starting in 1979, ADK first fielded a professional trail crew of five to work on “hardening’ trails to stand up to the use they were receiving. This initial effort was soon expanded to multiple crews, and photographic evidence can document the improvement in overall trail conditions. This is not to say that there isn’t much more trail work that needs to be done, but there is definitely cumulative progress on which future trails crews can build.

    My best example of that progress is the bog just short of timberline on Marcy. Today, a narrow boardwalk crosses a green expanse of grasses. Sixty-four years ago, when I first encountered that bog, it was black mud from edge to edge. Furthermore, my father said is was about the same in the 1920s when he first started guiding clients to Marcy. So,1920s-era use levels could ruin this part of the resource, but a few boards now allow thousands to cross this area without doing any damage.

    Let’s thus look at the positives and see how we can build on them when it comes to managing this unique resource..

  3. Zephyr says:

    Thank you Tony for pointing out what I have reiterated on here numerous times. Most trails and the Adirondacks in general are in far better shape than in the recent past, and I would add that most hikers are also far better prepared and more environmentally aware than the average in the past. I can vividly remember camping amongst hordes at Marcy Dam with campfires all around and every tree stripped bare up as far as you could reach. Or hiking up Marcy in a driving rain with the trail more like a waterfall in places as the water roared down the trail bed. Or the endless trash along the trails. Or meeting numerous hikers above treeline decked out in jeans and all cotton. Or hiking in rubber boots because the trails were seas of mud. One difference is that we read of many rescues because back then there were no cell phones so people had to get themselves out or receive help from passers by. More than once I came out with less spare clothing than I went in with because I had to help out a soaked hiker with no rain gear.

  4. JB says:

    Interesting history, thanks!
    You make a good case for trail design improvement as part of a strategy to help address this type of problem, especially in the High Peaks. I think that no one is arguing against the virtues of that, certainly not Peter.

    I’m sure that education and enforcement do alleviate some problems, but these have their limits. I suppose that my thinking is that whenever there is money potentially being pumped into anything and change in the air, good things can happen, but it is also very easy to exacerbate existing problems or create new ones, especially when vulnerable ecosystems are involved. Environmental groups wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they decided to be optimists and focus predominantly on the good. They need to focus on the bad to prevent it from happening.

    Even as recently twenty years ago, I was not really seeing the kinds of use and problems that we are seeing now, and whether I like it or not, things have changed. Zephyr mentioned that today’s hikers are more “prepared” than years ago (things that the “general public” did not typically have 30 years ago: GPS, cell, internet apps, social media, Gore-Tex, North Face, SUVs, etc.), but, also, the Wilderness is more sought after and accessible than ever before and should be managed as such–just as countless other environmental policies have been instituted elsewhere as use and accessibility has increased in other places around the world.

  5. Lee Nellis says:

    Happy to see #1. Local exceptionalism serves no one. Asking for help does not diminish the value of the Adirondacks as an example. I would suggest that the idea of bringing in outside perspectives be extended to the new management positions if those are funded. While there are downsides, much of the strength of the National Park Service and the other federal land management agencies is rooted in having managers who have had to learn to work in many different settings. This and the re-imagining of the APA are both going to require exceptions to NY’s Civil Service system.

    What I do not see coupled with the constantly re-stated need for more funding is the idea that the Park needs to generate revenue. I am constantly being reminded that the Park is larger, and by implication cooler, than Yellowstone. If that is true, then we ought to have to pay at least as much to play here as we pay there. Yellowstone generates more than $8 million in user fees (there are fees for concessionaires, etc, too) each year. Would the State Assembly be more likely to provide funding for new programs, new rangers, etc. if the Park generated substantial revenue? I will point out that residents can pay less to visit Yellowstone if they buy an annual pass, but they still pay.

  6. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    Peter Bauer might like this recent article in the NYTimes on Black-owned farms
    in Vermont.

    Joel Rosenbaum, New Haven, Ct
    (formerly of Massena, St Lawrence Cnty, N. Y.)