Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Permits in the preserves

AMR lotIn September I had a chance to try out the Adirondack Mountain Reserve’s reservation system. The Monday Dave and I went, it was pouring and there were a handful of cars in the parking lot and no people. Not exactly a good start for a journalist looking to chat with folks about how they liked the new system.

We sat in the car for a bit, and sure enough a car drove up and based on the amount of time it was parked near the parking attendant shelter, it looked like they might not have a permit. I secured my raincoat, grabbed my recorder and dashed to the vehicle in case it was about to turn around and head out to Route 73. Instead, the car drove into the parking lot and the couple that got out were equally eager to talk to me. They asked if they could jump on my hiking permit as they did not have one. One free permit can be good for up to eight people.

I interviewed the pair from Rochester before they set off on their hike to Indian Head. It showed that despite the efforts of the AMR and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, there are still people who do not know they needed a reservation. It will be interesting to see if next year the AMR and DEC allow for some same-day reservations, or allow for no-shows or cancellations to be opened to same-day visitors.

Also in September I took a drive down to the Peekamoose Blue Hole in the Catskills, the Adirondacks’ sister forest preserve. For a few years now the DEC has run a permit system for the popular swimming hole, however this season the DEC charged $10 per vehicle for access to the whole Peekamoose Valley. I was struck by the number of signs, over two dozen, in a short area warning guests of various regulations including needing a permit.

In our November/December issue I wrote about the two different permits in the forest preserve and how they’ve fared thus far. You can read that story online here.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Gwen’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Gwen is the environmental policy reporter for Adirondack Explorer.

23 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    I tried for reservations on three different occasions when I could go and there was nothing available, and yet I have read several published reports like this one that indicate an empty parking lot and nobody there. How is this better than simply allowing first-come, first-served parking until the lot is full? Why not allow hikers who can be dropped off? Why do you need a parking permit to hike? What is the carrying capacity of that trail and how was it determined? The trail easement was bought and paid for by the citizens of New York state, yet local people get special access? Is that legal?

    • Boreas says:

      If the hiking permits allow up to eight people, I would just hang around and see if I could get on someone else’s permit as the author mentioned. Perhaps entrepreneurs with a parking permit will start charging $10/person to fill up their cars before going to the trailhead. Might pay for lunch.

    • JB says:

      Zephyr, you have highlighted some serious inadequacies (or worse) concerning the AMR “pilot system”. If that’s the best that management can do, we’re all in trouble.

      In terms of the argument that the Forest Preserve is legally part of an unregulated commons, I would argue that this is simply not the case, nor should it be. Article XIV does not, to my knowledge, guarantee any such rights to unimpeded access–that is an a posteri invention of DEC. Rather, the supreme mandate is of Forest Preserve to be “forever kept as wild forest lands”. That does not sound like an unregulated commons to me; it sounds like a firm basis for state appropriation of the resource to be kept away from the commons.

      For better arguments against an unrestricted “tragedy of the commons”, I recommend a reading of David Schmitdz’s “The institution of property”:

      “Leaving our environment in the commons is not like putting our environment in a time capsule as a legacy for future generations. There are ways to take what we find in the commons and preserve it—to put it in a time capsule—but before we can put something in a time capsule, we have to appropriate it.

      …In an unregulated commons, those who conserve pay the costs but do not get the benefits of conservation, while overusers get the benefits but do not pay the costs of overuse. An unregulated commons is thus a prescription for overuse, not for conservation.

      …Therein lies a justification for social structures enshrining a right to remove resources from the unregulated commons: when resources become scarce, we need to remove them if we want them to be there for our children. Or anyone else’s.

      …It is possible to appropriate without prejudice to future generations. Indeed, when the burden of common use begins to exceed a resource’s ability to renew itself, leaving the resource in the commons is what would be prejudicial to future generations.”

      In his paper, Schmidtz provides numerous excellent references to case studies in rampant overuse of common pool resources that are resolved by removal of the resource from the commons, especially during periods of peak use and scarcity–thus counterintuitively securing common access through restricting it.

      But the AMR lands are not de facto Forest Preserve, are they? Maybe they are to be treated merely as a sacrificial thoroughfare for access to the underlying Forest Preserve, or something similar, with no constitutional protections. I honestly am probably not as informed as you on the specifics of the legal agreement. But notwithstanding is the necessary right of the State to restrict access to the Forest Preserve itself.

      Of course, if they botched AMR this bad, I cannot even imagine how badly a large scale permit system would backfire. That is the real problem the needs to be sorted out, lest the Forest Preserve will become essentially a failed idea. And some kind of Parkwide access restriction is the only such mechanism I see to do that, although restrictions do not necessarily equate to permits: they could enforce strong access restrictions while retaining “first come, first serve”, or make access more difficult by closing motorized roads, or just shut the whole Forest Preserve down when demand is unsustainable (as Canada has done), or buy conservation easements on bordering private tracts that are used as springboards and severely restrict access to those. Yet, they’re doing the complete opposite of access-restriction (everywhere but the AMR): building more parking and trails; and both increasing access and inducing demand while relying on the faulty premise the problem of overuse will resolve itself or that “education’ will solve the problem (and maddeningly, “education” in this case seems to be: don’t come to the most popular destinations of the entire Park, instead go spread the problem everywhere else, where they will be hidden from the spotlight).

      • Zephyr says:

        In short, the state purchased a bunch of land from the Ausable Club and added it to the Forest Preserve, which at the time bailed the club out of a financial bind they were in. In addition, the state negotiated an easement across club lands so that citizens of the state could have better access to this special part of the High Peaks. The easement was supposed to provide unimpeded access to the public, but there was a clause in the agreement that if needed to protect the environment access could be limited if both the club and that state agreed. Two major problems with the current limitations include how it was determined there was a need to protect the environment, and what the carrying capacity of the trail should be limited to. Of course, the DEC should be representing the interests of all New Yorkers, but seems in this case to have decided through some internal means that it was appropriate to limit longstanding access without any public input, any scientific study, or any plan other than to let the AMR do what they pleased by creating a parking and hiking permit system on their own, that still allow unimpeded access by club members and local people, while excluding the taxpayers that purchased the land and negotiated the easement. I believe also that the local town benefits because New York pays them in lieu of property taxes on the old club lands, even though the public is now prevented from using the easement as they have historically. It would be great if someone from the DEC would explain how this agreement came to be, what the carrying capacity of that trail is, and why certain people are allowed access but the public is limited.

        • Boreas says:

          It is important to consider that the entire area in question is not typical Forest Preserve. The state didn’t buy a solid block of land, but they bought a patchwork of lands above a certain elevation, leaving surrounding lakes, creeks, and lowland trails in the sole possession of the club for its continued use and enjoyment. There are camps, infrastructure, and private trails scattered throughout these lowlands that traditionally have enjoyed relative seclusion.

          It is important to note AMR had generously allowed free access to their trails (subject to a few rules) BEFORE any agreement was struck with NYS for legal access. At the time the easement was agreed upon, both AMR and DEC believed AMR would be able to continue to enjoy their lands, cabins, and trails just as they had in the past. This was based on current and anticipated foot traffic at the time of the agreement.

          A flaw in the easement agreement was lack of a clause stating how much foot traffic would be allowable, and where any additional hikers would park. AMR rules would still be followed and a parking area was designated, but no provisions were made for a ten-fold increase in hiker numbers. This was not only overlooked by AMR, but NYS/DEC. Both parties seem to have failed in anticipating this large increase in usage.

          Both parties entered into the agreement in good faith, and both parties are now in a position to have to react to the increased foot traffic. It isn’t simply a matter of trail damage, but also the ability of the AMR to continue enjoying their property with this increased usage. What the public doesn’t hear are complaints from club members regarding the increased traffic. These members are a generation away from the members that supported the easement and may have different priorities. Obviously, the AMR cannot ignore the wishes of its members or its obligations as a signatory to the easement.

          I agree that the “conversation” between AMR and DEC regarding the trial system was cloaked and we do not know what was discussed. Was there talk of rescinding the easement? Was there talk of purchasing the corridor? Was there talk of revising the easement to place limits and/or controls on foot traffic through the property? Are the negotiations ongoing in private? Not knowing the conversation breeds distrust of both parties. But both parties agreed to the current situation of a trial permit system to test the future viability of a permit system. It is a test that was put in place while back-room negotiations supposedly continue regarding the future of the easement. Unfortunately, this is how the DEC has come to make its decisions when representing the public.

          It is becoming increasingly clear these “back-room” negotiations throughout the Park are toxic to public trust. Even with social media such as this, DEC is slow to realize the effects of this mistrust. They would be wise to be much more transparent as the new governor states as a priority. Failure to do so will ultimately make their management much more difficult.

  2. Long Lake says:

    Great questions! Might get an answer if you and journalist Craig contact Governor Kathy Hochul. The Governor keeps saying this new administration is ALL about transparency. I’m sure the AMR, DEC commissioner and the town of Keene will keep things the way they are unless a larger number of NYS voters/taxpayers speak up.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    You want reservations?

    This is the crap that comes with them unless a massive system for education, reservations, and enforcement is implemented…🤮

  4. Glenn Weston says:

    Peekamoose is a beautiful place that was “discovered” a few years ago and now gets thousands of visitors daily. All along a narrow,winding road.A permit is the least they can do to help pay for the impact on the roads and environment. New York is gorgeous and I’m glad that more folks are enjoying the outdoors.( I’m also grateful that if I avoid Peekamoose, Breakneck, and 46 places in the ADKs I can enjoy a quiet time in the woods) .

    • Bill Keller says:

      Hikers do not pay any fees for their sport unlike hunters, fishermen and women and snowmobilers. Some think that all the tax payers of NY state should pay for their sport. Then some whine about free permits and not being able to get one, complain about the AMR and it’s rules and limited parking. They ignore the simple fact that more people using the few trails that service the 46 high peaks will eventually ruin the natural landscape. I’m afraid that we have become an entitled society that expects everything while giving nothing in return.

      • Zephyr says:

        The purchase of the land and the easement was made by the taxpayers of New York for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every taxpayer paid for this access, including you and me. Plus, despite all the doom and gloom about “overuse” most trails and the overall environment of the High Peaks region are in far better shape than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Where are the studies indicating that this trail was being overused and excess numbers of hikers were damaging the environment? They don’t exist. The decision to limit access was made without any study that has been made public.

        • Boreas says:

          It is difficult to perform proper retrospective studies when the usage patterns have changed significantly over 50 years. Your opinion on trail conditions is only that – your own anecdotal opinion based on your observations. It does not take into consideration the natural environment surrounding those trails, such as noise, sanitation, and camping impacts. It also does not take into consideration the targeted trail remediation (switchbacks, re-routes) and maintenance performed by AMR that is not the case throughout the remainder of the HPW. Your opinion is certainly valid, but not something the DEC can consider a scientific study.

          I am the first to agree that the requisite studies to determine holding capacity MUST be performed – and kept transparent. But in order to perform controlled, scientific studies in the future, one needs proper controls. Perhaps the AMR area will be used as a unique control for the remainder of the HPW since it is a unique property – similar to ADK properties.

          These are decisions that will effect generations of users long into the future. Mistakes have certainly been made by ignoring usage trends, but the future of the AMR easement and the HPW as a whole depends on making solid decisions and plans today. We have to start somewhere – why not the unique AMR property as a convenient control for the requisite studies?

          • JB says:

            Thanks, guys, for the background info on AMR. On carrying capacity: I read the VUM from APA/DEC and had mixed feelings.
            On the one hand, it is a step in the right direction, with some positive language and signals. But on the other hand, the bureaucratic approach to arbitrating and defining “carrying capacity”–sending staff out with a checklist that is full of pitfalls–is not so reassuring. It almost seems that in defining acceptable use, they are determined to err on the side of recklessness, marginally below maximum damage and just above minimum restriction–a stratagem fundamentally evident in the choice of the term “capacity”.

            I understand the aforementioned mentality for management of commercial enterprises, like campgrounds, where a return on investment is needed to stay afloat. But that’s not really the case with Forest Preserve and day or overnight use, is it? (Maybe you could try, unsuccessfully, to make the argument with hunting, fishing and trapping, but hiking?) Undoubtedly, Article XIV is a financial burden to the state (mainly non-property taxes on economic activity), particularly in that they pay taxes to Adirondack counties (which Cuomo tried to phase out, I might add). But that still does not justify unrestricted public access, nor negating 120 years of sacrifice and progress.

            For example, what if it was determined at some future date that customary public use of Forest Preserve, in the form of hiking, camping or something else, had reached such unsustainable levels that the constitutionally protected “wild forest” and “timber” could not be kept as such without building infrastructure on the Forest Preserve that would also inevitably violate constitutional protections? Would recreational use override the Article XIV “forever wild” mandate? Of course not!

            Even just on an ideological level, allowing persistent overuse of public lands (NOT an unregulated commons) goes against the worldwide conservation ethic. This status quo only appears normal to an insular American society, obsessed with the image of quasi-privatized National Parks and with the (flawed interpretation) of the Lockean proviso of an unrestricted commons. And unrestricted access to conservation lands under the justification that the boom-bust cycle is in a lull–as has been the case in times past–is not in agreement with basic conservation ethics: the entire philosophy behind conservation is a preventative prescription, not a remedial one.

            • Zephyr says:

              Article XIV doesn’t exclude recreational use, but it all depends on how you define “wild forest lands.” To argue there is degradation by overuse there must be a baseline established and then criteria for what overuse is. Right now the DEC seems to be saying they know it when they see it.

              Article XIV, Section 1:

              “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

              • JB says:

                The hypothetical point is that, in theory, they don’t “need” to prove anything to exclude people from Adirondack Forest Preserve. Obviously, it would be wildly unpopular, especially given that there are entire economies based around recreation (arguably a problem in and of itself’). But recreation is constitutionally and ontologically secondary, or I should say “peripheral” or “extraneous”, to wilderness preservation in the FP. And, if policies were to reflect that more, it would bring us in line with what is being done in Canada, or South America, or Europe, or Asia, or Oceania, or Antarctica–everywhere else.

                On the supposed panacea being put forth of permit systems, I agree with your position that they are not practical nor a solution. Even if permits could be enforced Parkwide per impossible–thus addressing the problem of the spillover-effect of unregulated and increased use on and around reservation-free adjacent lands–such a radical system could still be a worst case scenario for lesser-used areas, similarly to places like Algonquin Provincial Park or some of the infamous permit-only elk hunting lands of the Mountain West, but of Adirondack proportions. Imagine if the Adirondack Park was an American Algonquin Park, how different the culture would be, and how much more of an international tourist destination it could become…Oops, I better be quiet: if the government gets wind of that kind of tourism potential of the lower-elevation forests, it may be impossible for them to resist. (Zephyr, I do appreciate your strong opinion about this and know that you care deeply about the region, as I do.)

  5. Todd Eastman says:

    Is the real problem parking or trail sustainability’?

    Linking the two issues with no direct measurable correlation is stupid and will not withstand legal review.

    Effective management policy is expensive and not likely to be funded in any meaningful way in the Blue Line.

    • Boreas says:

      In my opinion, to the DEC it is parking, to the AMR it is trail use. I think the DEC feels it is easier to target parking/safety as they don’t have to do much study to make changes. AMR has no control over roadside parking – only the lots on their property.

      Historically, DEC policy was they “controlled” trail access by simply limiting trailhead parking, BUT they rarely took action on overflow roadside parking. Their “control” was wishful thinking. Who aborts a trip if they have to park a few yards away on the highway? This was a failure that eventually became a safety issue at certain trailheads. Once an unsafe condition became both newsworthy and an increasing liability, they had to act.

      At the current parking area on FP land, there is little room for easy, cheap expansion even if they wanted to. Apparently it was cheaper and easier to buy a small fleet of shuttles, pay drivers, and shuttle unlimited numbers of hikers to various trailheads. Hardly a control on trail access/use.

      The only control AMR had on hiker numbers was the size of the parking area on their property. Over the years it was generously expanded several times. So how should they react to essentially no limits on hiker numbers through their corridor and on their backcountry trails? Reservations.

      The reservation trial is touted as a joint venture between DEC/AMR, but the involved parties are not necessarily working with the same goals. DEC has been kicking this enormous can of worms down RT 73 for decades, but now it is too big to kick. They are in a position where virtually no detailed studies have been done with regard to trail holding capacities and parking systems. In my view, they are the party responsible for the “crisis”, not AMR. Usage trends have been increasing for 60 years, but the only DEC response has been enlarging parking areas, hardening the worst trails, and REMOVING lean-tos and poorly-located campsites. Any studies on environmental impacts such as water quality, sanitation, noise, and wildlife concerns? None that I have seen. There is no apparent overall plan or goal for the HPW as DEC historically has been spinning in circles. Time for a change in DEC leadership, concept, and conviction. Stay tuned…

      • Zephyr says:

        Why has the DEC decided to get involved in a parking permit program Limiting parking in the AMR lot through the use of permits has nothing to do with preventing parking along Rt. 73, which has been done by other means (barriers, State Police enforcement, signage). No, the DEC and the AMR agreed to limit the number of hikers using the public easement for other undisclosed reasons, though still allowing unlimited access to some people–namely AMR members and locals.

        DEC’s Mission
        Mission: “To conserve, improve and protect New York’s natural resources and environment and to prevent, abate and control water, land and air pollution, in order to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being.”

        • Zephyr says:

          By the way, the DEC doesn’t mention anything about preserving the environment on their web page concerning the AMR easement:

          “DEC and AMR have launched a pilot reservation system developed in partnership to provide reliable access and address public safety along a particularly crowded stretch of Route 73 near Ausable Road. The reservation system, operated by AMR, will facilitate safer public access to trailheads through the AMR gate as well as the Noonmark Mountain and Round Mountain trailheads accessed through AMR lands and improve visitors’ trip planning and preparation by ensuring they have guaranteed parking upon arrival. Reservations can be made at hikeamr.org” https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/100916.html

        • JB says:

          Zephyr, I think that there is some truth to what you are saying there. It’s not really all about parking. The problem is much larger and more complicated. A reservation system is the DEC offering a band-aid to a casualty of the recreational behemoth that they themselves have created. It is also a band-aid on the self-inflicted wound to the reputation of DEC/NYS. Users of the AMR have been forced into an overcrowded jar and festered into an infection. Now the infection is spreading to the dark recesses of rest of the Park, and we’re all just bacteria in the wilderness. The band-aids need to be ripped off.

      • JB says:

        Boreas, in terms of parking as access-restriction, I agree with you if you are saying that limited parking theoretically works, but that, collectively, unrestricted ad hoc parking, AMR’s own expanded parking, the shuttle system, DEC’s unabated recreational expansionism, and the looming conservation mandate and fragility of the resource have constituted an overdetermination of contradictions (i.e., big trouble). New York State, especially the Adirondack Park, could be a case study in overdetermination–our combination of non-cooperation, indeterminacy, wishful thinking, procrastination and escapism has created a uniquely dysfunctional atmosphere (although perhaps not that unique). Getting ourselves untangled is going to be accordingly confusing. For example, the phrase ‘abusus non tollit usum’, abuse does not cancel use: but in this case, abuse of Forest Preserve *does* cancel at least some level of use, and, on the contrary, I would argue that DEC’s lack of (enforcement of) parking restrictions *does not* cancel the entire idea of limited parking as an effective conservation tool and thus prove the superiority of reservations (reservations, which are, further, abused themselves and thus *are* subject to cancellation). It is a grand joke of fate that human beings are so clever, yet so inept at functioning where it matters most–or I should say, that human civilization is so reliant for protection from itself upon oligarchies that are at least as dangerous as we are.

        • Boreas says:

          The parking access/restriction goes back 50+ years. I couldn’t point you to the exact document where it sates it as policy, but it was hoped it would remediate heavy trail use on more sensitive trails and destinations. Obviously it didn’t work when hiker numbers surpassed the holding capacity of even the lots.

          During that 50+ years, DEC should have been keeping careful records in order to determine holding capacity – even if it was far in the future. They seemed to be much more preservation-oriented back then. Now they always seem to be in crisis mode because of “benign neglect” in the past.

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Glenn Weston says: “Peekamoose is a beautiful place that was “discovered” a few years ago and now gets thousands of visitors daily.”

    Yep. I remember them days when you could hit the Peekamoose trail and be rest assured you’d have a satisfying experience, even if there were more people than you’d like to have on the trail. I was in that area recently and it just isn’t the same. It has the over-use look, at least off-road it does, and at the trailheads where I saw trash galore, an outhouse loaded to the top with not only poop, but trash on top of it. Road posts (to hinder parking) are all over near the trailheads which takes away more of the once natural look, etc. Nothing ever stays the same! I imagine things will be worse in just a few generations as there will be hundred-thousand lots of more people added to the population considering the big push of late to ban the termination of pregnancies in this country by those righteous holier-than-thou’ers……..hundred thousand lots of more people looking for a place to get-away from the mess bestowed upon them by the generations prior.

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    JB says: “the DEC offering a band-aid to a casualty of the recreational behemoth that they themselves have created.”

    You mean all of the advertising the state put money into some few years ago, saying “Come one, come all to the beautiful Adirondacks. Spend your money while you’re here.”

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