Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thoughts on the High Peaks Advisory Group Report, Part 1

The eagerly awaited final report of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG) is out. It was worth the wait. The report is ambitious and thorough and comes at a point in time that could potentially mark a new beginning, where we’ll start to see a leavening in the overall management of the High Peaks Wilderness in particular and the Forest Preserve in general. Or, this report could be filed away to rust, lost to time. I hope that this report sees serious follow-up and implementation.

Bringing serious reforms to the management of the High Peaks Wilderness, and the Forest Preserve, is no easy task, but the HPAG report is the most serious blueprint we’ve seen since the days of the Pomeroy Committee and Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks the 1950s and 1960s.

The HPAG report is a mixed bag to read. It importantly amplifies ways to improve the High Peaks Wilderness Area management, but fails to fully diagnose the key challenges facing the High Peaks, and soft sells the impediments to meeting these challenges. The report is keenly aspirational, telling us that the High Peaks Wilderness is a “world-class Wilderness destination” that requires a “world-class visitor management system.”

The report is meant to be a catalyzing document that will lead to changes and reforms in High Peaks management through a new permanent advisory body and through a number of different studies that gather data on various management challenges. This data will help the advisory committee work with state agencies to implement reforms. The report is based on the belief that significant new financial resources and staffing are needed, and will soon be made available, for long-term investments in the High Peaks Wilderness and associated Wilderness areas. The Cuomo Administration has mystifyingly refused to invest in the High Peaks Wilderness in the last 10 years. An early indication of what kind of buy-in this report will get from state agencies is funding in the new state budget passed at the end of this month and forming a long-term advisory body.

The report is filled with jargon. In some places, the text is impenetrable. In many places, the report fails to provide basic explanatory text to set the context for its recommendations. It does a poor job of documenting the High Peaks Wilderness problems and explaining how its recommended actions will meet these challenges. The report is aimed at a population who is well-versed in the problems and challenges facing the High Peaks and who already think about ways to improve the region’s stewardship and management. The strength of the report is the sheer quantity and depth of its recommendations, of which I count a total of 150, that call for action.

There’s a lot in the report, far too much to distill in one article. (Editor’s note: click here to see the Explorer’s coverage on the report’s release.) This piece is the first of seven articles that will examine the HPAG report’s ideas, both those newly hatched by the report and those that have been around for a while, which the report kindly showcased. The purpose of this series is to not just distill the report’s recommendations but also to try and promote the full suite of issues that are vital for improving the management of High Peaks Wilderness. At this point in the history of the Adirondack Park, it would be a crime for these ideas to be ignored.

What’s most interesting in this report is that it recommends, ever so politely, to scrap the existing management framework of the DEC and APA in favor of a new bureau or division or unit that will somehow shake free of the bureaucratic shackles of DEC-APA to foster much better stewardship and management of the High Peaks. That is one way to do it. Another would be to fix the APA and DEC. The report focuses on the safer route of creating something new rather than trying to fix what’s broken.

The report makes recommendations for action in six areas: 1) Impacts to Wilderness and Ecology; 2) Visitor Experience; 3) High Peaks Wilderness Trails; 4) Public Safety, Transportation, and Traffic Safety; 5) Community – “Hamlets as Hubs”; and 6) Stabilizing Financial Support. The next six pieces will look at each of these areas. This piece focuses on the “long-term overall recommendations” and “guiding principles” of the HPAG report.

The Executive Summary highlights six “long-term overall recommendations”:

  • the establishment of an Adirondack Advisory Group, a new entity made up of members representing diverse interests to guide development of the strategic plan and the ongoing adaptive management that supports it;
  • the use of adaptive management and the adoption of the National Parks Service’s Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF) as the guiding tool;
  • the establishment of an outdoor recreation unit within DEC;
  • real time data collection and information dissemination;
  • further ongoing study and planning for parking and shuttle management: and
  • an “all in” approach to provide needed resources and funding for these efforts.

These are all admirable goals that if realized will help to improve the overall management of the High Peaks Wilderness. However, I’ve always thought that a Wilderness Management Bureau within the DEC Division of Lands and Forests may create a better focus for Wilderness management than one that focuses purely on outdoor recreation.

The HPAG report lists eight “guiding principles” that shaped its recommendations and that the HPAG believes should guide future management actions. The guiding principles profess an “unwavering commitment” to Article 14 of the state constitution, which is currently embattled, and the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. One potential problem is that the report justifies a new planning and decision-making process for the High Peaks Wilderness that will remain outside the legal framework of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, a document designed to hold state agencies publicly accountable for its management of public lands.

Guiding Principle 1 is “Protection of the Wilderness” and Principle 2 is Public Safety.” These two principles, we are told, “are inviolate guiding principles for the management of the High Peaks region.” Bravo!

Guiding Principle 3 is “A commitment to green infrastructure, transportation, and practices consistent with New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act [CLCPA] and related climate initiatives.” This is an important statement because both the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the key Forest Preserve management agencies in the Adirondacks, routinely blow off climate change mitigation. The DEC recently gave us 10 pages in the new draft Debar Mountain Complex Unit Management Plan of all the reasons it cannot undertake climate change mitigation in Forest Preserve management. For its part, the APA gives us similar rhetoric about why its approvals of subdivisions in intact forests that create massive carbon debts are somehow outside the reach of CLCPA.

Guiding Principle 4 is “A commitment to social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of management in the High Peaks region, from education to policies, visitor programs, hiring, and staffing.” This is an important statement, but the report hardly includes a blueprint for achieving this but points to other efforts that may pave the way.

Guiding Principle 5 is A commitment to bring proven expertise, science, and best management practices into the process. These best management practices need to address the entire spectrum of management actions that will be necessary to positively meet this crisis moment and reshape visitor services and natural resource protection in a new age of unprecedented use.” This is important. Two recent resignations from the APA Board, by Richard Booth and Chad Dawson, both criticized the APA and DEC for their failures to use science in Forest Preserve management decision making. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, like Governor Cuomo, gives lip service to the importance of science in making public policy, but then uses politics or personal goals or personal biases to make decisions. The majority of current APA Board members are openly dismissive about the need to use science in decision-making as is the APA’s senior staff. I have not seen a “commitment to bring proven expertise, science, and best management practices into the process” by the APA and DEC in years.

Guiding Principle 6 says “Use the best methods for assessment of conditions and development of action plans. At the cornerstone is elevating the use of limits of acceptable change approaches, which requires managers to define desired resource conditions and take actions to maintain or achieve those conditions. This requires making a commitment to establish benchmarks through empirical research and continued monitoring and response.” Note my earlier comments about the report’s use of jargon.

Given that it’s been nearly 50 years since adoption of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which called for development of Unit Management Plans for all Forest Preserve units, and we still do not have UMPs for hundreds of thousands of acres of the Forest Preserve, call me skeptical about the ability of the DEC-APA to “define resource conditions” or elevate “the use of limits of acceptable change approaches” or benchmark or monitor or undertake empirical research. It’s simply not in the bureaucratic-political DNA of those agencies. Nevertheless, other public land management agencies do this work, and have done so for years, such as the National Park Service, so it’s possible, and the report stakes its future success on organizing and implementing this new paradigm shift at the APA-DEC.

Guiding Principle 7 says “To provide necessary funding, support, and human resources for the DEC, Adirondack Park Agency (APA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other state agencies and local municipalities, as well as volunteer and non-profit partners, to adequately meet the needs associated with managing a world-class Wilderness destination. This principle includes Forest Rangers, Assistant Forest Rangers, Operations staff, Planners, Foresters, Trailhead and Summit and Natural Resource Stewards, outdoor recreation planners and managers, and other staff.” Forgive me here for wincing, but anyone who has tuned into Legislative Budget Hearings in recent years has heard legislators ask DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos if he has the staff to meet his mandates. He dutifully replies yes, all is well, which is met with laughter and skepticism. Seggos and Cuomo tell us that less is more, but the reality that we all see on the ground is that less is less. The next few weeks will tell us a lot as the new budget comes together. I’ve been lobbying the legislature, along with many others, to boost funds for Forest Preserve Stewardship in the new state budget, and there is support, but the Governor’s Office has to meet this moment and prioritize funding and investment in the High Peaks Wilderness and the Forest Preserve to make this happen.

HPAG lists Guiding Principle 8 as “A commitment to an open, transparent, and ongoing process that involves a broad range of stakeholders and the public. The future of these recommendations must be built upon public engagement.” This principle, I hope, was written in recognition of one of HPAG’s major failings. HPAG meetings for the last year were closed to the public and their posted summaries of these meetings were exceedingly poor. HPAG was a grand missed opportunity for public education. I had one Cuomo staffer, who recently left the administration, tell me when I complained about these closed sessions that I was misinformed and that these meetings were open to the public. This level of disengagement by Cuomo’s top environmental staff should worry us all about the commitment, and ability, of the Cuomo Administration to pick up the challenge laid down by this report.

The HPAG report starts with a series of overall recommendations that accompany its guiding principles.

The first overall recommendation says “Future strategic planning and design of a visitor use management structure for the High Peaks region should be undertaken in a manner that can be applied to other regions in the Adirondack Park and other regions of New York State that are experiencing high use and addressing similar issues.” Hear, hear. It would be something to see a visitor use management program established for the entire Forest Preserve across the Adirondacks and Catskills.

The second states “The State should convene and fund an Adirondack Advisory Group (AAG) as an ongoing group of diverse stakeholders and wilderness management experts to take the HPAG recommendations forward and guide the development of a strategic plan as well as act as an ongoing resource for visitor management.” This envisions the development of an overriding plan for all of the associated Wilderness areas around the High Peaks and should include planning efforts for Mountain Hoevenberg by the Olympic Development Authority (ORDA) and the Department of Transportation for the Route 73 travel corridor. This plan will be developed by a body of stakeholders outside APA-DEC, but that works with APA-DEC. In this way the HPAG hopes to build public accountability into the process along with empowering a vanguard group to make things happen. Hear, hear.

The third states “The State should implement a world-class visitor management system for the High Peaks Wilderness, and ultimately the Park as a whole, using an adaptive management framework. The HPAG recommends adoption of the National Park Service’s Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF) as the adaptive management tool.” This in an important focus in the report. The DEC-APA have struggled to develop their own management and monitoring frameworks. Past UMPs talked about how the DEC was blending together different “carrying capacity” programs to create its own monitoring program, but these programs never came together. If VUMF can be successfully utilized in the High Peaks Wilderness that will mark a major step forward.

HPAG calls for VUMF to be managed by a new entity with the DEC. “While recreation is a component of DEC’s Lands and Forest Division, a renewed focus on outdoor recreation management must be accompanied by the hiring of trained outdoor recreation professionals familiar with these unique challenges and opportunities. This formal role must encompass and coordinate natural resource management, visitor experience, trail/facility construction, operation and maintenance, and education.” That’s a big list, beyond the scope of the current DEC Division of Lands and Forests. There certainly needs to be a renewed focus on Forest Preserve management by the DEC, with attendant staffing, the question is how this group is organized. This, of course, is a key reform.

The report states “World-class adaptive management can only be achieved if it actively involves all stakeholders in a coordinated effort at the data level, process level, and policy level.” This new management entity is expected to partner in different ways with a variety of stakeholders. Hear, hear.

The fourth states “Data collection, information dissemination, and real-time conditions at parking areas, trails, and other amenities should be integrated into a consistent information framework, including an online app, web and social media resources, kiosks, and message boards. Ultimately, data should be available in a Geographic Information System (GIS).” That’s a tall feat to pull off, but this is something done regularly in national parks. This should be attainable in the Adirondack Park.

The fifth says “An ‘all-in’ commitment of resources and funds by the State and partners must be made to inventory, improve, and maintain the trails in the High Peaks region and recognize them as the vital infrastructure they are.” There are roughly 300 miles of trails in the High Peaks complex, 200 miles of formal trails and 100 miles of herd paths to trailless peaks. The current ad hoc system has produced band-aids like the wooden staircase on Mount Colden as well as the new sustainable trails on Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade Mountain. An effort to rebuild this network into a formal trail system would be the largest Forest Preserve management program ever undertaken. A recommendation for an inventory of 80 miles of high priority trails in the summer of 2020 in the HPAG interim report was never undertaken, which shows how daunting a job this is.

The sixth major recommendation says “The Volpe Shuttle Feasibility Study commissioned by DEC should be the basis for in-depth planning using the Complex Planning mechanisms recommended above. Parking design and transportation are important tools for managing capacity in general and at specific sites. DEC must collect data and use that data to adjust management actions for each site. The management goal is to meet the demand for parking, while balancing need for the protection of the resource. This process will have to be ongoing.” So, beyond the jargon and policy-speak, the idea is to improve the ways that visitors to access High Peaks trails, which involves parking and shuttles. These are complicated issues that require good information to help develop solutions. The HPAG report weirdly never mentions the South Meadows Road or the parking problems on the Loj road, but tackling those thorny issues should clearly be part of the mix.

In the weeks after the High Peaks Advisory Group was named in late December 2019, the Department of Environmental Conservation announced that the public was invited to share comments. Protect the Adirondacks submitted a 20-page letter with 33 recommendations to the group. There’s a lot of overlap between what we recommended and what HPAG has published.

The next articles will dig deeper into the specific recommendations, section by section. We hope that this plan gets the platform it merits, that its ideas break into the public mind, and that its ideas are met with open and honest evaluation and consideration by the state agencies.

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Peter Bauer

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 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 and two children, 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 Twitter.




8 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    This is an admirable effort tp start the process of breaking out the “Advisory.” And we look forward to Peter’s further unpacking of key aspects.

    The Almanack and Explorer are obvious vehicles for starting the job. And enthusiasts and advocates like Peter, among others are more than qualified to air their take.

    My thought is that communication of the “advisory” findings ought to be in and of itself a well thought out process. Are we thinking of the range of influential social media applications to grab attention of the ever growing populace interested in the High Peaks (and other heady places)? What print, TV, Internet and related hubs might be engaged to influence the mores of the broad audience that will be using the area?

    Perhaps a communications confab would be useful. The editors of the current “house,” might be magnanimous enough to facilitate the much needed word-smithing but what’s more…it would help snowball (in a technical sense) the acceptance of guiding principles. Bureaucracies will not be enough.

    The goal, as Peter implies, is to make many of the recommendations an inherent part of ADK culture. His impressive efforts are a great start, but a planned acculturation process is needed to diffuse the central findings — we no longer can rely on collective common sense that has been the adaptive way-of-life heretofore.

    A Churchill may be in the audience.

  2. Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

    Good article, but more optimistic than I am! There’s a lot to discuss, but here are some conclusions:

    – As I said before, the report seems long on ideas and a little short on implementation. Plus some of the ideas are ambitious indeed. I disagree strongly that it’s a “safer” option to create a whole new government agency rather than advocate for present parties to do better. Rather, it’s a hec of a gamble, and could turn out great, or not so much… (everyone loves the APA 50 years on, especially since it helped the environment so much…amirite?…)

    – Also, I think the state is given a weird bit of a pass regarding it’s obligations. Even Peter is only cursory in noting that the Cuomo admin has been out to lunch here. Yes, many of us left-wing folks have disliked the Cuomo admin before it was cool. (But just because the clock on the right-side of the aisle is showing the correct time at the moment, doesn’t mean the right has a plan for post-Cuomo NY.) The state is the powerful entity here, and therefore I think it’s fair to have higher expectations of it than other players.

    – Finally, I’m concerned that so far, I believe we’ve only seen tepid responses at best from local leadership, if they’re following this issue at all. The Explorer just interviewed Senator Dan Stec. It’s unclear if he’s read the report. Among a lot of talk about the economy he raised the issue of how management of the High Peaks will generate or use state revenue. It was his version of the Republican classic, “But how are you going to pay for it?” This is Republican-ese for “I don’t really support this policy/program/agency, and I’m going to hide behind “fiscal responsibility” rather than suggest an alternative path forward.” One side of the aisle always has money for tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy etc, but gets fiscally concerned as soon as we start talking about needed state agencies.

    To conclude: I think Peter has several ways of saying what should be stated bluntly: first and foremost, we need advocacy. Rather than ask the state to start an agency, where is the non-profit or political action group that supports these recommendations? The friendly folks that will organize contacts to local leadership, lobbying in Albany, organizing (and accepting donations from!) all of the many visitors to the park? This would be an org separate from present environmental stakeholders, because modernizing the management plan is not a purely environmental task.

    Get people to sign petitions, hang out at trailheads during the summer waving signs and signing up visitors to an email list. Make it inconvenient for powerful players to forget this report. Make it an image issue. Absolutely make it an image issue for state leadership, in a productive, non-mud-slinging way, and that’s how real momentum is built. If it’s enough of a political issue that leaders can’t ignore, people will scramble to make concessions rather than risk bad press. A lot of stakeholders seem weirdly reluctant to do this. I have a feeling you all think activism is something for uninformed people, whereas I know from years of experience that activism is definitely what gets the goods.

    • Boreas says:

      Vanessa,

      Including activism at the trailhead, I would also suggest citizen activism in ALBANY. Nothing like a march on the capitol to make some news. Perhaps a march from Whiteface to Albany, getting signatures throughout the Park on the way down. Many unemployed people up here may be willing to make that march. The need for more Rangers is becoming absurd. The Park does not belong to Stan Dec or the governor or local communities within the Park. The entire state needs to get involved and realize what kind of changes are needed.

  3. Zephyr says:

    As I have written previously, these advisory groups are created with the sole purpose of delaying any actual action. The people that participate are not to blame and work hard to make a good report, but the whole purpose of the endeavor is to obfuscate, delay, and come up with so many dense documents and sub-studies that the DEC can pick and choose bits and pieces here and there to justify whatever action they actually want to take. Also, there is no viable budget to pay for any of this stuff hiding somewhere in the state budget. Plus, I believe many local officials want nothing to do with limiting visitors to the High Peaks. Sure, some of them are worried about road safety or environmental problems, but the #1 issue that drives local politics is financial. They will not spend money to limit visitors that every single local business wants to see more of, not less.

  4. Deborah A. Smith says:

    Suggest looking at the outstanding work of the non-profit 14ers.com founded by Bill Middlebrook as an advocacy group and an action group which has rehabbed miles and miles of mountain trails in Colorado.

  5. JB says:

    Peter, thank you for taking the time to write this series.

    My main takeaway, which in my opinion is the most important ideological elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, is your mention of this important issue: the DEC “focuses purely on outdoor recreation.”

    I completely agree that the balance has tipped too far in that direction! Priority 1 must be “Protection of the Wilderness”. No where in the nation have I seen a general populace that has such unfettered (and taken-for-granted) access to prime Wilderness. Unfortunately that could be the Park’s downfall, which DEC has certainly facilitated in their becoming of the “outdoor recreation department”. Inevitably, addressing this issue will create friction between any institution that finally has the courage to step up to the occasion and just about everyone else, but it absolutely needs to be done, and I think you are right that this report could be a step in the right direction. I am glad to see at least some semblance of acknowledgement also that the Park is an interconnected system and may need to be managed as such as issues spill over to other regions.

    Zephyr’s comment–about local governments within the Park being far from impartial in meeting the challenges that conservation demands–is also spot on. The Park is uniquely threatened in this area as well: Few wilderness preserves in the world have local governments as entrenched in the management process and as able to put up such a strong fight against sound wilderness conservation. This is again an example of management agencies making unacceptable compromises in conservation to appease political entities, while in reality, Park local governments are absolutely raking in money, owing to State actions, to a degree not seen anywhere else in the State: look at rural localities immediately outside of the Park boundary in any direction and the lacking for revenue trumps that seen in localities within the Park.

    Lastly, I am closely watching how “carrying capacity” will be managed in the future, for as you say in your Recommendations: parking is the primary tool that DEC has relied on up until now to manage visitation. The type of expanded parking being built Park-wide will increase use without increasing capacity. We cannot even completely “build away” ecological capacity limits with trail construction! If indeed the State begins managing the Park more in line with wilderness preservation, some limits on recreation or access will need to be accepted by localities, visitors and management–much to their chagrin.

    JB

  6. W Randolph Franklin says:

    Seeing that $500,000,000 was spent by ORDA in a decade was a shock. I’d like to see a summary of the major money flows from NYS to the region. E.g., how much PILOT money does NYS pay? I tried to estimate that from Newcomb’s tax rolls, but gave up, because the relevant taxes are not identified. What about upkeep of state highways? Other subsidies of county and school budgets? Knowing the big picture, we could begin to allocate.
    (Bring on the tar and pitchforks:) What Exit 29 needed was not a $25,000,000 campground but a commercial rest stop with restaurants, stores, hotel, and maybe a Walmart. There’s basically nothing between Lake George and Plattsburgh.
    What Lake Placid needs is to add facilities like hardened trails to Whiteface. This would support visitors while drawing demand away from the Marcy region.
    If you want to reduce Marcy traffic, then close the ADK’s facilities.
    What will really happen is that the balkanization of control will continue the gradual downhill progress, just as is happening at Lk George.

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