Editor’s note: This commentary is in the March/April 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine, as part of our “It’s Debatable” feature. In this regular column, we invite organizations and/or individuals to address a particular issue. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, available in both print and digital formats: www.adirondackexplorer.org/subscribe.
The question: Should the Adirondack Mountain Reserve require reservations?
YES Julia Goren
Yes, now is the time for Adirondack Mountain Reserve and the state to be testing a hiker parking reservation system.
The High Peaks and heavily visited areas in the park are at a crisis point. Visitor numbers are breaking records each year, with the peak-hiking season lasting longer than ever. Crowds keep coming, despite the pandemic and travel restrictions.
Visitor safety, natural resources and the wilderness experience are negatively impacted. The harm to water quality, trails, wildlife and opportunities for solitude is well documented. The science and experts are clear. The negative impact of overuse is not debatable.
The recently released report by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s High Peaks Advisory Group (HPAG) calls for a three-year pilot program to test permits as a strategy for managing recreational impacts. As with other recommendations, such as portable toilets and increased educational presence, it is heartening to see implementation of the outstanding work of the HPAG happening so quickly.
In fact, under the 1999 unit management plan for the High Peaks Wilderness Area, the DEC determined and was authorized to enforce natural resource capacity limits to protect wilderness. After more than 20 years, a pilot program is overdue.
Testing on private lands, such as the AMR, will generate useful data and allow all to learn from the process. The pilot will also provide useful information for another of the key recommendations of the report—implementation of the Visitor Use Management Framework, an adaptive framework for managing recreational use. This tool will guide the state’s actions toward recreational management of the forest preserve. Under state law, recreation takes a backseat to ecological protection on the entire preserve, not just wilderness areas.
Limits at AMR this summer, combined with a planned shuttle, will help relieve some of the pressure on state Route 73 and its shoulders from Chapel Pond all the way to the Adirondack Loj Road.
We want visitors from Brooklyn, Binghamton and Buffalo to feel welcome. Part of that is giving them a fair shot at getting a parking spot in a popular location. A free online reservation system is more equitable and can help hikers plan.
If our most fragile areas are overrun, so that all sense of solitude is lost and signs of human impact are everywhere, is it really still wilderness? Research indicates that scientists and hikers say no. Both say they want to avoid overuse and overcrowding that leads to ecological damage. Hikers told us in recent surveys that they want to find a primitive landscape with nice mountain vistas, where crowds are not an issue. This pilot system is an opportunity to provide that experience in one area.
The AMR is a perfect test site since it is private land, purchased for and dedicated to preservation, and open for public use with limits. AMR and DEC codified this agreement in 1978, when fewer than 5,000 hikers came through the gate. The 1978 agreement gave both AMR and DEC the obligation to protect the resource and the right to restrict use as necessary to preserve the 1978 character of the reserve. In 2020 more than 35,000 users were counted. The AMR wants public access and preservation of wilderness, and they are willing to fund and staff this pilot, education and more staffing.
Hopefully, as the COVID-19 crisis starts to diminish, and with new money in the state budget, the DEC will increase staffing levels and assign new personnel to forest preserve management. All agree new rangers are sorely needed. So are new engineers, planners, trail crews, biologists, wildlife managers and laborers.
When we learn how reservations help, we can better handle the current 12-million-plus visitors and prepare to welcome more people in the years ahead. We can have systems in place to keep crowds from harming the solitude, beauty and health of the national treasure we call the Adirondack wilderness.
The HPAG report concludes, “The time for action is now.” I couldn’t agree more.
Julia Goren is director of the Adirondack Council’s VISION 2050 Project, a 30-year strategic vision for the Adirondacks, and former education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club.
NO Bob Meyer
I fully support Article 14, the “forever wild” amendment to the New York State Constitution, and I support all genuine, good-faith attempts to study and effectively deal with the real problems affecting the High Peaks. The High Peaks Advisory Group produced a thorough report covering all the issues and possible remedies affecting the High Peaks.
What are the real, pressing problems? Overcrowding, litter and human waste are real issues, but only in a few places. In my 65 years of Adirondack hiking and climbing in all seasons, most of the High Peaks are in better shape now than they were in the “good old days.”
I think the most pressing problems are infrastructure, staffing and effective education. Most of our trails are straight-up-and-down disasters of no design. We need a real comprehensive remake of hundreds of miles of trails.
We need many more rangers, not just a few more. We need more stewards, improved front-country facilities with trained educators. The need for more parking is not going away.
Regarding equitable access, this permit system will adversely affect the ability of access to underrepresented folks, especially minorities. Many people do not have the experience necessary to effectively navigate this unwieldy permit system. How will this be equitable for visitors, even those with camps, versus the full-time residents who are in the park all the time and have the advantage of being able to pick and choose their hiking days all year? There is already a reservation exception for the residents of Keene and Keene Valley. Is this not favoritism? All New Yorkers pay the taxes that support the forest preserve and make up for the tax breaks given to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. The only reason for choosing private land is legal, not ecological. The reservation comparison to state campgrounds is a false analogy. Hiking is about the freedom to roam in the wild. Campground camping is about a structured, limited number of available spots like an inn or hotel.
This “trial” is about people restrictions. The ban on dropping people off without reservations at the AMR overturns a longstanding right of way for people to access the forest preserve through the AMR property. The restricted hours and car numbers further complicate the issue.
I am concerned about the slippery slope of the AMR limiting access through this contractual, nonvoluntary right of way to access to our forest preserve. More legal issues are at stake here, including tax abatement for the AMR, what constitutes degradation of land and how this is determined, the potential complications between the AMR and the Department of Environmental Conservation, any potential conflicts of interest between individuals or group proponents and the AMR/Ausable Club, as well as the legal right of way itself.
Will this “trial” reservation system solve either the resource degradation or the parking problem? I think neither. The number of vehicles in that specific parking lot may be lessened, but people will just go elsewhere. Thus, it just moves the problem elsewhere like whack-a-mole.
As for degradation of the resource, the well-used, packed-dirt Lake Road has not changed in decades. As for the trails on the AMR land, with the exception of those on Bartlett Ridge and Sawteeth, the property does not exceed 3,000 feet. In essence, the AMR trails (no off-trail bushwhacking allowed on AMR lands) are relatively stable, less-steep, lower-elevation paths. I hiked the E. Side trail (very lightly used) to Indian Head to Gill Brook in 2019 and noted that even the steep sections were in very good condition. Trail erosion and degradation occur at the higher elevations that are all on state land where soils are thinner, mostly organic and much steeper.
If all other remedies are thoroughly tried and the problems persist, then and only then should permits be considered.
Bob Meyer is a professional musician, jazz drummer and part-time professional photographer who lives near Peekskill and whose family has had a camp near Pottersville since 1938. He is an avid hiker and loves everything and anything about the Adirondacks.
Almanack file photo