This is the fifth 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 “Public Safety, Transportation and Traffic Safety” section of the report.
A high priority in reformed High Peaks Wilderness management is improvements to the ad hoc parking situation that has grown worse over the years and is stressed to breaking during periods of intense use all along the north side of the High Peaks Wilderness. Good public access with a coherent trailhead parking plan is as important as sustainable trails, science and monitoring, and higher levels of professional staffing to significantly improve the management of the High Peaks Wilderness Complex in the years ahead.
HPAG frames the issue this way: “Increased interest in the High Peaks region has brought large numbers of visitors to the HP/73 corridor, exceeding the capacity of trailhead parking lots. As a result, visitors are often parking along the shoulders of highways, in residential neighborhoods, and in the hamlet business district, requiring the people to walk along the road to their desired trail. This is creating a dangerous situation in some areas, and conflict with residents and business owners in others. This results in regular, predictable dangerous situations, negative impacts on residents, and lost economic opportunity for local businesses.” HPAG could have also added that beyond the “HP/73 corridor” the fact that many hikers walk for miles on the Adirondack Loj Road just to reach a trailhead.
As it does throughout its report, section by section, HPAG calls for in-depth studies on shuttles, search and rescue, planning for “hubs” that encircle the HPWC. HPAG calls for greater financial resources and state investments and more personnel to build a coherent, stronger HPWC management program. The new state budget has funding for research, at least.
The report details ad hoc measures that the DEC and Town of Keene have put in place over the past several years to improve this situation. These include “No Parking” signs in many places along Route 73, the Town of Keene hiker shuttle, warning signs at Northway Exit 30 and other places, front country steward programs by the 46ers, Town of Keene and PSC Adirondack Watershed Institute, stepped up patrolling by Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers, among other efforts. While the overall control efforts, such as those listed above, have limited the overall spill-over parking at the trailhead parking areas a number of distant parking areas and road shoulders that are not posted have seen heavy use, which has increased “road walking” around the Chapel Pond area and Roaring Brook/Adirondack Mountain Reserve trailheads.
The “Public Safety, Transportation and Traffic Safety” section of the report focuses on improving the overall parking opportunities and trail access. This part of the report differs from others insofar as meaningful, though debatable, major programmatic changes are already in the works. At the Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), a new 1,500 car parking lot is in the final construction stages. This enormous parking lot will service the new sustainable trails to Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade-Porter Mountains that are also under construction. This new parking lot and trailhead will have public restrooms and some kind of store that provides food and other trail basics.
The state has poured tens of millions of dollars into the top-to-bottom renovation of the Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex as part of the Cuomo Administration’s principal Adirondack economic and community development strategy – feeding the ORDA trickle-down economy. Before she retired, former State Senator Betty Little, Andrew’s Cuomo’s biggest supporter and a key ally in the Adirondacks, was installed on the ORDA Board to keep the state’s Adirondack investments ORDA-centric. The Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex expansion includes serious and major changes to the Cascade-Porter Mountains trail access. Once the new sustainable trails to these mountains are completed at some point in 2022 or 2023 (the new sustainable trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg is expected to be completed this summer) the Route 73 Cascade trail and parking areas will be closed. That’s a major programmatic feat for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The new parking lot and trailhead will bring serious, long-term change and improvements to a chronic hazardous and ad hoc parking and public access situation to the most popular hiking trail in the High Peaks. Of course, closing down the Route 73 trail and parking lots will not come easy.
The report tackles various ideas to change public parking along the Route 73 corridor. Yet, it is oddly silent on parking and public trailhead access on South Meadow Road and the Adirondack Loj Road. Starting at the west end of the Route 73 corridor, HPAG endorses actions already underway, such as the new massive parking lot for Cascade-Porter Mountains at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex, and a new parking area/trailhead for Pitchoff Mountain approved in the 2020 Sentinel Range Wilderness UMP. These changes should clean up a lot of the parking challenges at the current Cascade-Porter-Pitchoff trailheads along Route 73.
The report also calls for a new parking lot and trailhead for Ampersand Mountain, where spill-over parking from the small parking area along busy Route 3 often sprawls along the roadside. A new parking lot is also called for study in the Chapel Pond area. The report makes no recommendations about a larger or secondary parking lot at the Garden in Keene. The report calls for stormwater controls and upgrades to existing parking areas.
As with other sections of HPAG plan, the report endorses the importance of research so that current data and analysis drive policymaking and decisions. Good science makes good policy. This is vital for building new information systems for parking availability and an effective and highly used shuttle system. HPAG calls for “system planning” to integrate public education, parking, shuttles, and trailhead crowding. A coherent system of “gateway” parking areas/shuttle locations should be studied from Exit 29 to as far away as Tupper Lake, with multiple points in between. These locations should be equipped with restrooms, charging stations, ample parking, and a “real-time communication system.” These locations should be staffed by trained professionals who can guide and advise hikers to safe and enjoyable experiences, hiking etiquette, and Leave No Trace practices. These locations would ferry hikers via shuttles to the northside and southside trailheads.
This strategy, possibly, would help to disperse use, to other hikes outside the High Peaks. This effort would augment the Town of Keene/Adirondack Atlas “Trails Less Travelled” App. Protect the Adirondacks has also published an online trail guide to hikes outside the High Peaks as a dispersal effort.
A big challenge in the report will be to limit parking options “based on the allowable capacity for the trails.” As it stands now, the shuttles, when they operate (and they did not operate due to COVID19 in 2020) will drop hikers off at maxed-out parking lots, irrespective of any capacity concern issues. In the summer of 2021, this does not appear to be changing. If the Rooster Comb or Roaring Brook lots are full, hikers will be encouraged to go to Marcy Field to get a shuttle. (There will be no shuttle drop-offs at the AMR parking lot.) While this may stem roadside parking, it does not address capacity issues. Building an effective and highly used shuttle system will be a major challenge, but integrating an effective and highly used shuttle system into an overall capacity management system will be an even bigger challenge.
The use of shuttles is a major focus of HPAG to meet a variety of goals – public safety, public education, trail dispersal, and trail capacity limits, among other things. HPAG calls for a major study to plan an effective shuttle system, which is connected to a real-time information system to inform hikers about parking options. They say the system should be managed by one entity. There clearly needs to be coordination and integration of the shuttle system with capacity limits if that is the direction that the DEC intends to go. Many questions remain about how a shuttle system that services the entire High Peaks Wilderness will be organized. Here are some of the questions HPAG raises where data is needed:
- What is the “Carrying Capacity” of the trails?
- What are the available parking spaces at each trailhead?
- Will additional off-street parking be constructed, and if so, where?
- Will all additional parking be located at shuttle hubs only?
- What are the different types of users and what are their needs?
Big questions. Important questions. Answers will be very helpful.
In this section, HPAG calls for hiker permits to be studied: “Parking passes/permits should be investigated as an option to limit use.”
- Current trailhead parking could be limited to parking passes only.
- The possibility of establishing a parking pass system where people go to a central location/hub to obtain a permit. Obtaining a parking pass would be coordinated with hiker information and education materials. Visitors could get a parking pass for a particular location or use the shuttle system.
- Planning, design, and operation of parking lots must account for different users: 1) Scenic vista pullouts should be short-term parking only so that visitors can pull over briefly to enjoy the scenic vista and take a picture. Currently, hikers fill all these spots. 2) Climbers need access to cliffs, and planning should not neglect these users. This group also comprises rock climbing guides who operate on a slightly different schedule. 3) There needs to be an allocation of parking for both these user groups to access the resource.
Any discussion of hiker permits, of course, is a big and controversial issue. HPAG treads softly into this debate, aware that this one issue can derail and overshadow many other important, say vital, management reforms.
The last major issues in the “Transportation, Parking and Trailhead Safety” section are “Education for Hiker Preparedness and Dispersion” and “Enforcement.” The education section calls for early interventions by the DEC and Department of Transportation (DOT) to direct hikers to public information sources, such as Marcy Field in Keene. Effective information hubs would help reach hikers with key messages about public safety and use of the Forest Preserve.
The “Enforcement” section states “Enforcement is going to be an essential and ongoing component of most management actions being considered.” HPAG calls for a study about the level of search and rescues in the HPWC. What do the numbers of rescues show year by year? What are the costs borne by state agencies? What are the impacts on personnel?
HPAG calls for an examination of fees for hikers who request assistance. “Examine laws and regulations other states, such as Colorado, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have used to collect rescue costs related to actions involving irresponsible outdoor recreationalists.” HPAG states “Commission a study similar to the shuttle study to research current New York State law and insurance regulations and examine the hiker/skier responsibility laws and regulations other states have adopted. Use the study as the basis to engage stakeholders and develop alternative plans for recouping rescue costs.” These are important issues that the State of New York has been reluctant to take up.
As with the other sections of the HPAG report, the DEC has been mostly silent on its plan for moving forward on improvements to High Peaks Wilderness management reforms. In the short-run, DEC and Essex County leaders are hopeful about operating an expanded hiker shuttle system this summer. A new trial permit program is set for the highly used Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking lot and trailhead. The recent new state budget includes funding for research and trail work. These are all important items that will show continued forward progress, though a full assessment of the HPAG report by the DEC is needed that shows the public a pathway forward.
This is the fifth 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.”