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.