Tuesday, April 6, 2021

HPAG Report: High Peaks Trails

This is the fourth 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 “High Peaks Wilderness Trails” section of the report. A focus on hiking trails in the High Peaks is vital, as in many ways, it’s the condition of the trails that ties together other management efforts.

As with other sections of the HPAG report, the recommendations on trails require significant new investment by the state on a sustained, annual basis to make progress. Trail work success in the High Peaks, given the challenges of the terrain and the heavy use, is measured in feet, not in miles. There are roughly 200 miles of formal trails in the HPWC and another 100 miles of herd trails for the so-called “trailless peaks.” Perhaps, more than any other area in the HPAG report, the measurement of its traction and impact will be seen through a change in trail work scope and intensity.

The HPAG report plays it straight in how it frames the problem and the challenges: “Given the exponential increase in trail use, coupled with decades of patchwork construction, partial maintenance measures, and emergency repair, it is essential to make a significant investment in the trail infrastructure of the High Peaks Wilderness. This will not only help protect the natural resource but will create a better user experience.” Amen.

The report further states “Trails in the High Peaks Region present severe degradation of the resource and the overall wilderness experience, primarily due to the fact they were not designed using sustainable techniques. The main trails/major arteries going in wilderness areas, which are central to hiking activities in the Park, are USFS Class 4/ DEC Class 5 trails, known as trunk trails, which have some turnouts and intersections leading to summits and other areas of interest. Poor historic trail design paired with a steady increase of users and a trend in year-round hiking seasons have led to trampling of surrounding plant communities, erosion of soil, muddy conditions, trail widening, and braiding (a network of social trails added by users who wish to avoid a condition or obstacle, or seek their own route). Assessing the conditions of main access routes will inform management actions. Recommendations include an empirical review of trunk trails, trailheads, and alpine zones to ground truth conditions, and establishing benchmarks for monitoring.” Again, amen.

The HPAG interim report in the spring of 2020 placed a high priority on an inventory of some 80 miles of priority trails to assess conditions and plan rehabilitation and reconstruction. That fieldwork never happened. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has advertised for positions with its High Peaks Trail Crew for 2021, now in its fourth year. It has contracts with private trail construction businesses, like Tahawus Trails and the Student Conservation Association. This summer, the DEC expects to complete its new showcase sustainable hiking trail on Mount Van Hoevenberg, from the reconstructed Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex to the mountain’s summit. Once that is completed, crews will shift to the new re-routed trail up Cascade Mountain and Porter Mountain.

In many ways, the new trails on Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade-Porter Mountains do not just showcase an example of a new type of sustainable foot trail built with a wilderness ethic and wilderness trail building techniques, but also attempts to reclaim the art of trail building in the High Peaks and the Adirondacks. “Degraded trail conditions are a direct result of limited funding and dated trail maintenance practices within the Park. With the exception of special projects like the new Cascade Trail, trail re-routing and rebuilding is rare” the report tells us.

As with other sections of the HPAG report, the importance of ongoing monitoring of natural resource impacts and public use is emphasized in the “Trails” section. The newly built hiking trails on Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade-Porter Mountains provide an opportunity, which the HPAG report endorses, for active monitoring. One important thing that did happen in the summer of 2020 is that DEC contracted with the SUNY-ESF staff at Huntington Forest for baseline data collection and analysis of natural resource conditions in these new trail corridors. This information will provide an excellent opportunity to assess change and impacts over time.

HPAG calls for establishing a schedule to survey major trunk trails in the HPWC. A “trunk” trail is major hiking trail on the most popular mountains. The survey should be used to develop a priority work program for rebuilding the most highly used and degraded trails in the area. This type of comprehensive work program based on an inventory from across the HPWC will lead to “better use of staff time and funds,” restoration of trail corridor plant communities, improvements to water quality and wildlife habitat, and an overall “improved wilderness experience.” The need to build a high-quality trails system in the High Peaks Wilderness Area and associated Wilderness Areas cannot be understated.

As stated consistently over the years, it has always been mystifying how little the Cuomo Administration and DEC have been willing to spend and invest in the High Peaks Wilderness Area and the Forest Preserve in general. The Cuomo Administration spent $25 million to build the Frontier Town Campground. It has spent over $500 million in the last ten years on upgrades and expansions of facilities managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA). The Adirondack economic development strategy of the Cuomo Administration is principally to make investment after investment in the ORDA trickle-down economy. The ideas of HPAG will only be successful if the Cuomo Administration and DEC get serious about funding the Forest Preserve. For the last 10 years they have chosen not to make these critical long-term investments.

HPAG also focuses on trailheads and the first half-mile of trails. These parts of trails should have a special focus with good inventories and plans for reconstruction, rehabilitation, and maintenance. HPAG also endorses and expresses strong support for the continuation of the highly successful Summit Stewards Program.

The last two trail section matters that HPAG takes up are, perhaps, the most important. These focus on the need to “build trail maintenance and construction capacity” and the need for “trail system research.” HPAG calls for all hands on deck for trail work. “Develop a mechanism to include private funding as a source for trail construction and maintenance, and, working with partners, continue to pursue resources and build capacity for trail maintenance and construction. Pursue expanded trail collaboration programs that include volunteer trail adoption, training of volunteer crews, and increased coordination and partnerships with organizations in the area that have trail expertise. Reach out to trail crews and networks in the Northeast for shared training and knowledge.” Bringing in more funding beyond the state is important, but the anchor of state funding is critical. Bringing to the Adirondacks outside hiking trail building expertise is also important.

HPAG realizes that even with larger state investment, real progress cannot be made in the years ahead, given the dismal state of many miles of trails and the massive backlog of deferred and delayed maintenance, without substantially increasing the private efforts that supplement the state’s work. More organizations need to step up and get involved in trail construction and maintenance efforts.

Enhanced trail work will require ongoing monitoring and assessment, both for planning and implementation. “Design, implement, and support a wildland monitoring program with an emphasis on trail assessment that relies on a capacity determination. Identify five sites in the backcountry that need the most attention. Analyze and collect data for these sites, including year-to-year numbers at site and monitoring of behavior. Measure the capacity of the trails to withstand use and protect the quality of the hiking experience.”

As with other major sections of the HPAG report, the big ideas in the “High Peaks Wilderness Trails” section will only be implemented with greater funding for trails, public education, research, and enhanced DEC staffing, and in collaboration with an independent and diverse management committee to lead the process. Without these foundational pieces many ideas in the HPAG report will rust.

This is the fourth 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. The third article looked at the “Visitor Experience” 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.

5 Responses

  1. TimM says:

    I agree: it’s all about trail work! Look at the millions of people who hike the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, for example. Most of those trails are in much better shape than the ADK despite being used by many, many more hikers.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    regarding this 4th installment by Peter Bauer, I agree 100%. It’s really a no brainer to anyone who has experienced High Peak trails in the last decade plus.

  3. Boreas says:

    I posted this earlier, but it must have gotten lost in the server. I’ll try again.


    I agree – it is all about the trails. This is what I would like to see:

    1. Albany/taxpayers approve a dedicated bond act to fund trail rehabilitation across the Park, but targeting the HPW. This is to ensure adequate funding regardless of political administrations and budget shenanigans.

    2. DEC or others use this fund to determine the trails at highest risk of damage, and determine a plan of action for each – which would include re-routes, water mitigation, grade mitigation, hardening, and parking.

    3. Work with the APA to either temporarily or permanently re-classify the HPW to enable the fastest and most efficient way to create and maintain these new trails and upgrades.

    4. Establish a Trail Commission to continually study and add or alter plans for trail maintenance and new trail construction.

    Until there is dedicated funding for trails in the Park, I honestly don’t see the necessary changes and upgrades occurring on a human time scale.

    • CK says:

      Seems like a good plan.

      ‘As stated consistently over the years, it has always been mystifying how little the Cuomo Administration and DEC have been willing to spend and invest in the High Peaks Wilderness Area and the Forest Preserve in general.”

      Mystifying is a word for it