This is the sixth 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 the ideas cataloged in the last two parts of the report “Hamlets as Hubs” and “Stabilizing Financial Support.”
The “Hamlets” section attempts to lay out ideas for how communities that are overwhelmed by people seeking to hike in the High Peaks can better manage the associated impacts, such as the Town of Keene, and how other communities can attract more visitors, such as North Hudson and Newcomb. Adirondack communities unevenly experience the impacts of the hiking surge in the High Peaks and other parts of the Forest Preserve. The “Hamlets” section is one of the biggest sections in the HPAG report. It includes 30 recommendations for action, more than a dozen alone to manage human and animal waste better.
HPAG states, “as visitors arrive in increasing number and frequency, some Adirondack communities are struggling to effectively and sustainably manage the influx. Simultaneously, other communities experiencing fewer visitors would welcome more tourism.” HPAG was dominated by residents and local government officials from the Town of Keene and that community saw a special focus in the report: “the town of Keene is highlighted below in the Immediate Actions recommendations. Information hub strategies in Keene should be supported in other hamlets as foundations for the development of a regional distribution model.”
The “Hamlets” piece echoes ideas in earlier parts of the HPAG report that imagined a different kind of public education program where a series of satellite parking areas and shuttle locations are deployed to educate hikers and help to manage access. This “circle around the High Peaks regional distribution model” dovetails with the goals of creating “hubs” to better distribute hikers to other communities that provide access to the High Peaks, especially North Hudson and Newcomb. The issues identified for building effective “hubs” range from a lack of basic services, such as facilities with year-round flushed toilets, to real-time communication systems about trailhead parking availability, to consistent educational messaging around things like “Leave No Trace,” to major Adirondack Park social and community development challenges like affordable housing and broadband/wifi access.
HPAG calls for a “regional distribution model” for public use and tourism. They write about a “Circle Around the High Peaks” built upon “strategically placed information hubs. This model is consistent with Corridor Management Objectives in the DOT Travel Corridor Unit Management Plan. The route would begin at Frontier Town/North Hudson, which could be the Central Hub, with satellite hubs located in hamlets along the circle. The route would encompass Route 73 through Keene, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, and Long Lake to Tahawus and back to Frontier Town. This long-term project could proceed in stages and develop both communities and infrastructure.”
The ”Circle Around the High Peaks” is a grand integrated vision and proposal. Other things in this section are truly basic but have nevertheless been difficult to organize for decades: “The High Peaks region is a year-round destination for outdoor recreation, and access to a well-maintained and managed system of appropriate bathroom facilities would both improve the visitor experience and play a key role in resource protection.”
Just as with other challenges facing the High Peaks, such as trailhead access, trail conditions, and parking, efforts to include, equip, and build capacity in Hamlet areas are essential bricks in a long-term integrated management program. “Creating a safe, central location for visitors to access information, bathroom facilities with water- and communicate with trained staff — will improve traffic flow, limit confusion, and promote safety and public health. Contact with a trained professional provides an opportunity for education in LNT and preparedness, which improves the visitor’s experience and promotes safety in the backcountry.”
For the “Hamlets” piece to be successful, core ideas in other parts of the HPAG report need to be developed, like the full adoption of a new Visitor Use Management Framework approach for managing natural resources and public use. The sustainable trails, public education, and infrastructure parts are also vital for managing public use. Communities have a huge role to play and should be actively supported by the state to manage various parts of this work.
The final section of the HPAG report deals with money. That’s the big issue, specifically that not enough of it is spent in managing the High Peaks. The HPAG report consistently makes the case that management efforts for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex are underfunded. The reluctance of the Cuomo Administration to invest in the management and trails of the High Peaks Wilderness has long been a disgrace. It makes no sense from a public policy standpoint. The only way that we will make meaningful reforms in the High Peaks Wilderness is through additional staff and additional resources and investments. If the State of New York can invest over $500 million into the facilities of the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) and spend $25 million to build the Frontier Town Campground, it can get serious and commit to spending tens of millions to rebuild the public use infrastructure on the Forest Preserve.
The HPAG report states: “Maintaining and improving a world-class trails system that protects ecological systems and natural beauty while holding up as essential state infrastructure is an enormous task. Supporting facilities are also needed, such as front country infrastructure. Current efforts and projects are understaffed. New tasks and projects generated by HPAG recommendations will require additional staff.”
And, the report further states: “At this time, most of the DEC work in the Adirondack Park is funded through the Environmental Protection Fund’s (EPF) stewardship program. This funding is designated for competing projects throughout the state making it difficult to direct the continued, focused attention needed for the High Peaks region. Also, while this fund may be used for projects, tools, consumables, grants for outside organizations, and contracts, it may not be used to fund staff or staff time on projects.”
The report calls for studies to identify areas of understaffing, where new staff positions are needed, where there are gaps in project funding, the price tag for various HPAG recommendations, on the viability of establishing a dedicated fund for Forest Preserve management, and to investigate the “feasibility for a private funding mechanism/source.” It’s unclear who will take on these studies or whether the DEC will be forthcoming with the necessary data and information. It’s unclear who will do the work of imagining the new architecture for reformed management, built with many of the ideas enumerated by HPAG, but there needs to be good planning to calculate the staffing and program costs therein.
DEC staff who work on Forest Preserve issues today face major constraints in doing their work. Right now, staff who need to undertake fieldwork in the Forest Preserve are lucky if they can get a state vehicle one day per week. When they are lucky enough to get into the field, DEC staff undertake fieldwork with pencils and clipboards because there’s no funding for computer tablets or cellphone Apps for data collection, which significantly limits the effectiveness and efficiency of their fieldwork. This is the reality of how Andrew Cuomo and Basil Seggos manage the Forest Preserve.
It remains to be seen if the HPAG report and its comprehensive focus on reforming and improving the management of the High Peaks Wilderness Complex will be a successful catalyst in breaking the logjam that has prevented adequate funding for the High Peaks at the DEC. One constant theme in the challenges facing the future of the High Peaks Wilderness Complex is the lack of investment by the State of New York. Serious management reforms will not be possible without significant new staffing and other financial investments. The new state budget has around $1.5 million that can be used for High Peaks trails, education and research, among other things. That’s a start.
This is the sixth 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.