By Charlotte Staats, Adirondack Council
The overuse crisis is no secret in the Adirondack Park. While it has been building for years, the global COVID-19 pandemic sent residents and visitors to the woods in unprecedented numbers, seeking exercise, solace, and connection to nature. The physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors have been well documented; and generally speaking, a growing hiking community is a plus for public health, local businesses, and our collective societal wellbeing.
Here’s the drawback – trails in the Adirondacks were not built with a sustainable design in mind, nor to withstand current levels of use. As a result, Adirondack trails are suffering from trail degradation that impacts natural resources, human safety and the wilderness experience. There’s a solution, and it requires state action and dedicated resources.
The vast majority of Adirondack trails were built long before sustainable trail design was a concept. No one could have foreseen the level of use that these foot trails would come to experience, especially on mountains that have well exceeded their usage carrying capacity, such as the popular Cascade Mountain trail. Many trails were originally blazed to get to mountain summits as quickly as possible.
As a result, hiking trails in the Adirondacks often follow the fall-line (go straight up a slope) and natural stream beds or drainages. Trail blazers in the Adirondacks, with few exceptions, did not take into account the fragility of certain soils, or the impacts of water or foot traffic. In the early years the use levels were low enough that the damage to the resource was minimal. Then in the 1970s and since, the use exploded and negative impacts multiplied.
Today, the tread (the walking surface) of many trails exhibits a variety of symptoms associated with poor trail design and use exceeding capacity (overuse). This degradation and tread erosion is marked by gullying, washouts, and exposure of roots and rocks that create uneven walking surfaces or tripping hazards. Gullied trails make it impossible for water to shed from the tread, creating self-perpetuating erosion. For example, after a rain storm or when snow is melting, you can often find water running down the length of a trail, carrying soil along with it.
Not only does this erode trails by creating gullies or washouts, but it can cause sedimentation in water sources and degrade water quality. Other impacts related to poor trail design and lack of maintenance include vegetation loss, soil compaction, muddiness, exposure of tree roots, trail widening and the creation of undesignated trails (side trails created by recreationists, often to avoid part of an existing trail). The drastic increase in use of hiking trails has exacerbated these issues. Not only are these impacts from trail erosion and degradation noticeable and take away from the quality of recreation experiences, but it also negatively impacts natural resources and human safety.
In fall 2020, Adirondack Council staff examined segments of the St. Regis and Ampersand Mountain foot trails for signs of erosion. They found that trails with a slope less than 8% built on suitable soils show little to no signs of erosion with moderate use levels. Scientific literature and trail experts generally believe that an average trail slope should not exceed 10% (and meet other criteria) but the data collected suggests that even on short trail sections in the Adirondacks erosion can start at 8%. More research and work is needed to determine what standard is appropriate where in the Adirondacks. For scale, the maximum allowed grade for a federally funded highway is generally 6%, with some exceptions for mountainous terrain going as steep as 7%. Staircases in buildings are typically built at a 30% slope.
It is not surprising that as slope increases, the prevalence of moderate to severe erosion increases (see figure below). Most sections of trail that have a slope greater than 8% show signs of erosion. As slope increased, except where the trail tread was hardened, maintained and drained, and use levels stayed on the designed trail (as noted below), so did the signs of erosion (such as gullying, washouts, and exposure of roots and rocks). Stretches that had been fortified with rock staircases and appropriate drainages had reduced signs of erosion.
St. Regis and Ampersand Mountain are only two of many mountains whose trails exceed the 10% slope standard. As this limited assessment suggests, with proper construction and maintenance, a trail at 10% or higher, for sections, can be sustainable. In a GIS analysis from 2019, it was found that 167 miles of trail in the High Peaks Wilderness exceed a slope of 8%. In 2018, a preliminary assessment conducted by the Adirondack Council based on input from multiple in-Park trails professionals found that 130 miles of trails in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks suffer major resource damage from poor trail design, lack of maintenance and overuse. All trails needed more and continuous maintenance.
We know about the effects of overuse, erosion, poor trail design, scarce trail maintenance, and the exponentially increasing use on hiking trails and natural resources. Given the results of our initial analysis, Adirondack trails, especially in areas designed for restoration and protection as Wilderness, require substantial research and monitoring to guide future trail construction and maintenance efforts. Adirondack Wilderness specific trail design standards are needed.
The Adirondack Park is a unique national treasure that is enjoyed by millions of people annually. As such, the hiking trails that draw so many to the region deserve and require comprehensive, science-based monitoring and management in order to preserve natural resources, safe access, and the wilderness experience for generations to come.
Although land managers and natural resource planners have a suite of tools in the management and regulatory toolbox to mitigate the impacts of overuse, one strategy that cannot be understated is trail maintenance and the use of sustainable trail construction methods. When a trail is built to sustainable trail standards, the trail itself generally can carry more users, requires less maintenance, less infrastructure, and lasts longer than trails that do not follow these standards.
A sustainably built trail is one whose tread cuts across the slope of a mountain, gaining elevation gradually with slopes that are less than 10%, and whose tread is sloped outward so water sheds off the downward side of the trail, not along the tread. Steeper grades are acceptable for short distances, particularly if they have enough native or installed rock infrastructure (such as rock staircases) to hold soil and reduce erosion.
Before a trail is even built, there are aspects of trail design which lend themselves to being longer lasting. While laying out the trail, the land manager or trail designer must consider the soil and vegetation types and the hydrology of the surrounding area. Different types of soil handle water and hiker traffic differently. The soil particulate size (from fine-grained clay, to sand, to loam and gravel) and ratio of those particulates influence how resistant to displacement soil is.
Additionally, including grade reversals (when a trail alternates between going downhill and uphill) is another essential piece of good trail design. Grade reversals naturally collect and shed water off a trail. As you can imagine, trails that cross different land types require different considerations when laying out and building a trail. For example, trails going alongside wet areas require different considerations than those that go through a dry, sandy areas.
Photo credit: Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn, The National Gardening Association
After a trail is designed with the appropriate sustainable conditions, the construction and maintenance require skilled and experienced oversight. While volunteer work plays a huge role in the continued maintenance of trails, highly skilled trail workers are irreplaceable and absolutely essential for efficient and effective trail construction and maintenance. Critical features of sustainable trail construction require an expert eye to ensure that the trail is built to last and withstand decades of use. Job opportunities in trail construction and maintenance are good jobs that can lead to a life-time career all over the world.
Bond Act a Potential Source of Funding
During the state budgeting process, the legislature proposed a $3 billion dollar “Restore Mother Nature” bond act, the first bond act with an environmental focus since 1996. This critical piece of environmental legislation allows for funding for four distinct categories of projects: restoration and flood risk reduction; open space land conservation and recreation; climate change mitigation; and water quality improvement and resilient infrastructure. A compelling case can be made that sustainable trail construction is a capital expense that is eligible to be funded by bond act proceeds. Well-built and maintained hiking trails protect natural resources and wild spaces while having a lifetime of use that connects people to our natural world, offering memorable experiences, solace and a deeper sense of self.
The construction of sustainably designed trails will provide opportunities that can attract and retain skilled labor in communities throughout the Adirondack Park. For the benefit of our public lands and the people that enjoy them, the state needs to take action to repair and rebuild our aging trail infrastructure. If the Adirondacks are to be preserved for public enjoyment and future generations, the state must dedicate resources to rebuilding and maintaining the trails in the Adirondacks as part of the preservation and management of this wilderness resource.
Charlotte Staats is a Conservation Associate for the Adirondack Council.