This article concludes the series examining the ideas in the final report of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Group (HPAG) that provides ideas for building a new and improved management program for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex (HPWC). This article focuses on the realities of turning the ideas in the HPAG report, many of which have been around for years or are already in the works, into on-the-ground realities in the management of the HPWC. This piece looks at how to evaluate the success of the ideas enumerated in this report through adoption and implementation of leading ideas in the short-term and long-term.
The report was greeted warmly by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement “I commend the efforts of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group in developing this important report which provides solid recommendations to further enhance our ongoing efforts to manage use and protect our irreplaceable natural treasures.… With the growing uptick in visitors to the High Peaks region, compounded this past summer by New Yorkers desperate to get outside as a respite from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical that DEC and our partners work together to protect these irreplaceable lands for future generations by promoting sustainable recreation, supporting local communities, and improving the visitor experience, and we look forward to working with all partners to continue and expand our ongoing efforts.”
The final report, said the DEC, addresses “immediate and chronic issues, including coordination of parking and pedestrian safety, implementation of actions identified in unit management plans, design and implementation of the trailhead shuttle pilot, portable toilets, increased support of public land stewardship programs, and expanded Leave No Trace (LNT) education and outreach efforts.” The report also “addresses long-term actions such as coordination of current planning efforts, continued long-term planning for recreational use, and targeted data collection to sustain an iterative management process.”
Commissioner Seggos did not provide any statement about the HPAG recommendations as to what the DEC supported or opposed, “but committed to adopting” the Visitor Use Management Framework pioneered by the National Park Service as a guiding tool for adaptive management in the HPWC. “Commissioner Seggos and DEC experts are reviewing the final report as the agency continues its efforts to promote sustainable use while supporting communities in the High Peaks region and throughout the Adirondack Park” said the DEC
As discussed in prior articles, the HPAG report is not so much of a roadmap or blueprint for reforms, but more of a grab-bag of good ideas. The central goal is to help the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to build a comprehensive management program built around public education, science to monitor natural resource impacts and understand users, sustainable trails, and improved facilities for parking and access and new investments in personnel.
Given that the DEC has not spelled out its intentions for how it plans to go about implementing the chief ideas in the HPAG report, we’re left to look at the following leading indicators about the DEC’s capacity to reform.
A functioning shuttle system in 2021 by Essex County and the Town of Keene: The state authorized funding for Essex County to buy shuttles and hire drivers in 2020, but plans were scuttled by COVID19. The Town of Keene has operated a shuttle from Marcy Field for several years and it suspended operation in 2020 as well. The Town and County are now scrambling to set up a shuttle program for 2021 that runs to many different trailheads for long hours. If this program is a go, it should be adequately studied to assess its rider levels, usefulness, and impacts.
More public education/trailhead stewards/Leave No Trace efforts: Will contracts be put together for trailhead stewards to provide public education and interpretation in 2021? That’s an open question. These programs are great opportunities for Leave No Trace (LNT) education. There is funding in the Environmental Protection Fund for these types of programs in the High Peaks.
Meaningful scientific monitoring and assessment of the AMR parking/trail access program: The reserved parking/hiking pass program is off and running for the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) parking lot/trailhead this summer. Setting up this program was no small feat and shows that the DEC has the capacity to experiment. The big question is how will this program be assessed and studied. The state needs to organize and fund a credible independent scientific review of this program. There is funding in the Environmental Protection Fund to support projects like this in the High Peaks.
Operationalizing a Visitor Use Management Framework for HPWC and Forest Preserve: The APA canceled a planned Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF) presentation from the DEC earlier this year. The APA and DEC have been modifying the VUMF used by the National Park Service for the Forest Preserve for several years. The idea, of course, is that a consistent monitoring protocol is needed for use by both agencies to develop data to assess natural resource and social impacts on the Forest Preserve. For years, Unit Management Plans have included pages of monitoring/carrying capacity gobbledygook that was never used. (And the APA blithely and unquestioningly approved UMPs with this gobbledygook that was never used.) Now, apparently, the DEC and APA are close to a program that has been field-tested, though more testing is needed, but is supposedly close for a public preview. If state agencies can operationalize a Forest Preserve VUMF this year that will be a huge step forward for Forest Preserve management. These types of VUMF assessments are ripe for contracts with outside credible independent scientific researchers. There is funding in the Environmental Protection Fund for these types of programs in the High Peaks.
Completion of MHV Trail/continued work on Cascade/Porter trails: The new sustainable hiking trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg from the Mountain Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex is projected for completion this year. The trailhead at the rebuilt and expanded Winter Sports Complex is also expected to be completed this summer. This trail has been four years in the making and opening it will be a big deal. Once the Mt Van Ho trail is completed, the focus will turn to completing a new sustainable hiking trail to Cascade and Porter Mountains. The DEC Trail Crew and contractors are set to start 2021 work at the end of May.
The key long-term challenges all rotate around a new comprehensive management program for the High Peaks that combines public education, sustainable trails and access facilities, science, and secured and enhanced funding for personnel and research. The ability of the DEC to reform and rebuild its Forest Preserve management program on these four vital cornerstones will dictate the quality of DEC’s management going forward and the ultimate success of the HPAG report.
The list of critical long-term management reforms is daunting, but far from impossible. Some of these things the DEC has already committed to doing, while other major changes have been in the winds for years, though the Department has not committed to them.
Vital, projects and programs where the DEC has begun work include organizing a campsite/lean-to assessment and inventory in the HPWC. Planning is also underway for the closure of the Cascade/Porter Mountains trailhead/parking area and the Pitchoff Mountain parking area and trailhead on Route 73. These have been approved in UMPs and the new trail up Cascade is under construction. The work for the Pitchoff Mountain Trail reroute and parking area is still in the planning stages.
The 2020 HPAG Interim Report called for a priority trail assessment for the main trunk trails in the High Peaks. Unfortunately, nothing was done on this in 2020, but this type of work should be feasible for the DEC or a trail contractor. A priority list for trail construction is important because this work should plan for new trails, trail re-routes, trail closure, and for building new sustainable trails on the “trailless peaks.”
Other vital long-term changes will be much harder for the DEC. These involve changes in how the agency does business and will require far greater financial investments than the Cuomo Administration or Basil Seggos have been willing to make.
First and foremost is transparency. Decisions about how to manage the people’s land should be discussed and made in public. Decisions about how to spend the people’s money on the management of the people’s land should be made in public. Local governments meet in public. The APA meets in public. Various state boards and task forces, like the climate council and advisory groups, all meet in public. HPAG was not a transparent process, and that was a key failing. All future High Peaks management forums should be public.
HPAG calls for a new advisory body to help carry forth the ideas in its report. This body, HPAG advises, needs to include more diverse voices and represent a broad range of interests. This will be a tough lift for the DEC. A task force that develops a report in secret and with active DEC supervision is one thing, but an ongoing independent advisory body that monitors the success of High Peaks and Forest Preserve management reforms, and does this all in public, is a tall order indeed for the DEC.
Staffing is critical. At the DEC we have less staff than ever before in the Division of Lands and Forests, and it shows. Less is less. Every year Basil Seggos testifies to the Legislature that he has the staff he needs at the DEC, the HPAG report called for new staff on literally every other page. The management of the High Peaks and the Forest Preserve is chronically underfunded. New staffing in the years ahead will be a key indicator of success. HPAG notes “Current initiatives are stalled and implementing HPAG recommendations will be held up if the staffing problem is not addressed.”
In addition to new staffing there needs to be a commitment from the DEC for sustained funding for research, education, and trail building for years ahead.
The HPAG report calls out for a variety of natural and social science research to improve decision-making in the management of the High Peaks. Such a research agenda needs to be formalized, managed, and funded. This could be done by an advisory body, or a research team could do this. The critical items are a research agenda and lining up the funding.
Success in building a comprehensive and sustained education program through online outreach, apps, social media, direct intervention at trailheads and on trails, LNT, and other means and methods, is one of the biggest challenges for the High Peaks. Initial social science research tells us that the overwhelming number of people who hike in the High Peaks have done some basic research about their selected hike. This is something to build upon to build up the public’s hiking skills and stewardship ethos.
Long-term infrastructure challenges include a system of year-round public restroom facilities near all major trailheads, a solution to public parking on the Adirondack Loj Road and South Meadow Road, improved parking at Chapel Pond and the two southern trailheads to Giant Mountain as well as at Ampersand Mountain.
The DEC needs to tackle the thorny issue of “capacity management,” also known as “permits,” at certain locations. This is an issue that merits serious study and investigations about how such a program would work in the HPWC as well as how other wild and heavily used areas manage crowds.
The last long-term issue is an assessment of a new High Peaks Wilderness Visitors Center in Keene. The HPAG report did not endorse this idea and the Town of Keene says that there is strong opposition to changing Marcy Field from its current uses. That said, the town is scoping out other possible locations in the community and such a facility remains possible, though there are lots of local questions and concerns.
The HPAG report largely omitted the role of the APA in Forest Preserve management. There are long-term hazards in writing the APA out of Forest Preserve management. The APA is the keeper of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP). HPAG expresses reverence for the APSLMP yet sidelined the APA. The reality is that sidelining the APA also sidelines the APSLMP. This is a longtime trend at Andrew Cuomo’s DEC and APA. One unfortunate outgrowth of the HPAG report is that it continued to diminish the role of the APA in the Adirondacks. The APA is supposed to be the lead agency for planning in the Adirondack Park, but its current leadership has abdicated that role. In this leadership void, the agency is reaping what it has sown. By abrogating its statutory checks and balances responsibility for the management of the public Forest Preserve and accepting a role as DEC’s flunky, it should be no surprise when a major report comes out that treats the APA as an afterthought. Fixing the problems at the APA should be a major part of Forest Preserve management reform.
There’s a ton of good ideas in the HPAG that need to be fully developed and operationalized. We’ll know soon enough, as we evaluate the short-term indicators above, if the DEC is serious about moving ahead with major reforms.
This is the seventh and last 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. The fourth article looked at “High Peaks Wilderness Trails.” The fifth article looked at “Transportation, Parking and Trailhead Safety” in the High Peaks. The sixth article looked at using hamlets as hubs and finances for the High Peaks.