Monday, March 29, 2021

HPAG Report: The Visitor Experience

This is the third article in a series examining the ideas in 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 (HPWC). This article focuses on recommendations and ideas in the “Visitor Experience” section of the report.

HPAG’s recommendations will require a significant investment in state resources on an ongoing basis and additional staffing to improve the management of the HPWC by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). HPAG recommends a long-term, broad-based advisory group to help coordinate management reforms. Without greater funding, enhanced staffing, and a management committee to lead the process, many of the HPAG report ideas will rust.

The Visitor Experience section is a big part of the HPAG report. I count 35 separate recommendations, some that try to breathe new life into dormant actions from existing Unit Management Plans (UMPs), others that spotlight ideas that have been in the wind for a while, and others that try to introduce new and different management options.

The HPAG report frames its recommendations for managing the visitor experience in three ways.

First, HPAG writes: “There are problems and conflicts in the spaces where recreational users start their High Peaks experience, i.e., the front country. There are limited restrooms, amenities, and information sources along the Route 73 corridor. Current parking lots are inadequate to meet the high demand, leading to conflict between users, managers, and enforcement, which often results in dangerous, illegal parking.” 

Second, HPAG writes: “While more hikers and new hikers have the opportunity to explore the High Peaks region, this has at times resulted in crowding, conflicts, depreciative behavior, and increased rescues…. inexperienced hikers are often unprepared and unaware of trail etiquette, and despite many of these hikers claiming to be aware of LNT Principles, the overall increase in the number of hikers means an amplification of negative impacts from others: i.e., trash, human waste, illegal camping and fires, food-wildlife conflicts, and landscape changes, such as rock stacking or leaving tributes.”

Third, HPAG writes: “Managers are challenged to balance effectiveness with visitor burden. They lack empirical data on what sorts of management actions would be functional and acceptable in the varied settings of the High Peaks region, and the sensitivity of the topic with the public is stalling decisions.”

There is little argument or nits to pick with any of these statements. They’re well-articulated and accurate. The challenge, of course, is what do we do about them.

The HPAG report spotlights seven recommendations for actions from the 2018 High Peaks Wilderness UMP Amendment that will help. The amended UMP set out a number of ambitious actions for visitor use monitoring of impacts on new trails, construction of new trails on Cascade and Mount Van Hoevenberg, Ampersand Mountain Trail parking/trailhead relocation, and changes to the Pitchoff Mountain Trail (in the new Sentinel Wilderness UMP). All solid actions that are all on the books, some even underway where visitor use monitoring could be undertaken at the beginning of public use of new facilities.

Perhaps more than in the other areas of the HPAG report, the “Visitor Use” section calls for more research and data to help direct the creation of a new comprehensive management program. Data needs are identified for relatively simple things like trailhead register data collection and analysis and much more difficult things like social science to examine hikers’ motivations and experiences, both visitors and locals. A big part of the “Visitor Experience” is about the need to better understand the High Peaks’ visitors. To do this, there needs to be a dedicated funding stream for social science research, along with the monitoring of natural resource impacts. In this year’s State Assembly-Senate budgets there is $400,000 allocated to the Adirondack Research Consortium (ARC) as a down payment to facilitate these kinds of research. That’s a good start if this funding holds through final budget negotiations.

There’s long been a great concern about management by anecdote in Adirondack Park policy. Unfortunately, we’re only starting to get some information on the users of the HPWC. The ARC forum with Dr. Heidi Krester and Dr. Jill Weiss was fascinating on these issues. Such information, for example, will help immeasurably to plan effective public education programs. Such information, for example, will help to more effectively manage public use levels. Such information, for example, will help to prioritize facility and trail upgrades and construction. A decade of solid research could transform the management of the Forest Preserve.

HPAG touches on the possibility of permits where it addresses managing the overall flow of public use. This can be done through parking limitations, shuttles, dispersal, or permits, among other means. HPAG recommends a 3-year pilot-study on one of the private land access points to the High Peaks where use levels can be controlled and studied. These points would be one of three: Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AuSable Club) access points, the Adirondack Mountain Club at Heart Lake, and Elk Lake Reserve at Elk Lake. Two of these tracts require public access as key parts of conservation easements. The other charges a fee for public access through its lands. HPAG’s key operative theory here is that there are greater opportunities to test out different assessment and management options at the key entry points on private land, where use limits can be set, rather than on the Forest Preserve, where setting use limits is more complicated. Perhaps. Count me as unconvinced.

Beyond the need for broad-based social science research on Forest Preserve visitors and pilot programs to study management options at private entry points to the Forest Preserve, HPAG focuses on public education. HPAG envisions an education plan, organized by a specially focused public education working group, as part of an overall HPWC plan. Education planning should focus on consistent messaging around hiker preparedness, hiking etiquette, Leave No Trace (LNT) ethic, up-to-the-minute parking and trail condition information, and shuttle schedules/capacity. Online education efforts will be augmented by direct trailhead/shuttle education opportunities with “front country stewards” coordinated through various efforts by the Town Keene Stewards program, Assistant Forest Rangers, Student Conservation Association interns, or Adirondack Watershed Institute trailhead stewards, among others, who focus on educating hikers before they begin their hike. These efforts are modeled after the highly successful Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewards program.

These are tall orders. A coherent and robust HPWC public education program, both online for those who are planning their adventure, and in-person at trailheads, has been elusive in past High Peaks management. HPAG smartly makes this a priority. As LNT has shown us, educated hikers have a lower impact than non-educated hikers.

A big part of the public education push and visitor management is the development of an App that people can easily access, something to accompany the high reliance on All Trails. The report states: “Create or partner to develop an Adirondack High Peaks Information and User Data Collection System with a well-designed app. Such a system will help users redistribute/self-select when situations are crowded. The app should include real-time parking information (lots full, redirect to available parking/alternate sites), shuttle information, trail conditions and closures, and breaking weather, news, and emergency information.” Such an app would be enormously helpful. It’s pretty commonplace at national parks to be able to get real time information on parking availability, and other information. Though an app would be enormously helpful, it will be a challenge to operationalize.

While the day-use hiker experience is often where the biggest management issues and tension points arise, HPAG also calls for a focus on overnight use. The 2018 HPWC UMP outlined a series of actions for campsite upgrades. Significant work has been done in recent years at Marcy Dam and Lake Colden to improve campsite management. These included: 1) “Each primitive campsite will be purpose-built, including proper siting, vegetation clearing, hardening of a formal tent pad, and other campsite accessories as needed (access trails, privies, and fire rings); 2) Inventory and evaluate existing campsites in the High Peaks Wilderness Complex. Develop work plans to improve, close, or move any site that is not sustainable or conformance. Once the site is completed, establish a baseline photo monitoring program and periodic monitoring program. 3) DEC will post signage regarding site changes at front country and backcountry locations to inform users; Maintain a map that is updated annually.” HPAG endorsed this plan of action, and encourages the DEC in this work.

Managing human waste with long-term solutions for facilities, rather than porta-john management, is another focus of the Visitor Experience section. The report states “Research and implement a long-term strategy for managing human waste in the High Peaks Wilderness. Move away from temporary solutions like port-a-johns and build vault toilets at trailheads where appropriate, and fund sanitation personnel to clean and manage them. Innovative solutions for backcountry waste management also need to be explored and implemented. In addition, identify and erect information centers that have public restrooms with flush toilets, access to drinking water, and maps/LNT education from trained professionals such as Front Country Stewards, on-duty Rangers or Assistant Rangers. Access to WiFi.” These recommendations require a coherent HPWC planning effort, as well as financial resources and investment.

The report is consistent with its call that science should drive policy. The report calls for numerous studies where the data and analysis will help to develop effective management programs. Like a coherent public education program, Forest Preserve visitor use and impact data has been hard to come by. The actual use of visitor use/impact data to inform public policy has been even harder to come by. If HPAG can bring on a new dawn of widespread research and data-driven policymaking, that indeed will be a great accomplishment.

This is the third article in a series that’s looking at the HPAG report. The first article provided a general overview. The second article looked at the “Impacts to Wilderness and Ecology” section.

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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.

3 Responses

  1. Lee Nellis says:

    Your summary of the report is a great service to everyone. Thanks!

  2. Lee Nellis says:

    Your summary of the report is a great service to everyone. Thanks!

  3. JB says:

    Good article, once again.

    As someone who has experience in software engineering, I would say that you are right about the challenges that the proposed app creates. Although my focus would be on the ethical challenges that come with developing a tool like that, not the technological hurdles. We typically think about disinformation when we speak of “cyber-ethics”, but location-related technologies have also created tangible, real-world problems, which we see every time a given location goes viral–we could argue that the problems in the High Peaks and beyond are the greatest example of this (the rise of Facebook and High Peaks use are suspiciously well correlated, although so are use and Cuomo-era advertising campaigns). The reality is that the ethical challenges posed by these types of applications are already beginning to outweigh the technical challenges as technologies such as artificial intelligence powered image recognition become affordable enough for wide-spread use (in the several thousand dollar range). But that is not to say that such a High Peaks App would necessarily prove harmful, just that there needs to be ethical oversight, ecocost-benefit analysis.

    The same goes for building infrastructure–in some places, toilets and running water, as referenced in the Recommendation, would do far more good than harm. Permits and use-limiting measures are not as cut and dry. As you say, acting based on small pilot studies on private land is probably not advisable nor good science. DEC is a black-box when it comes to their motivations, but I think that their permit-reluctancy may stem from more than just the usual ecologically-misguided public perception kerfuffle. If I am being optimistic, this may actually be a rare example of bureaucratic and environmental interests aligning: they know that implementing a High Peak permit system would be an ineffectual enforcement nightmare as people break the rules, bushwhack and trample, and just spill over to areas less capable of handling high traffic, both in terms of infrastructure and ecologically–at least tall mountains are centralized points of interest with barren bedrock summits that are not as populated by expanses of mucky wetlands and sensitive species. Harm-benefit analysis is the stage that we are in, unless we decide to adopt a Park-wide National or Provincial Park-type approach.

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