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.