Sunday, June 26, 2022

Adirondacks for all

Gwen in acadia

After about a year of reporting and a summer of travel, our initial series on solutions to increasing visitor use is complete. My last two stories ran in our May/June issue and are now up on our website. Of course this story never ends. This was our first crack at exploring what other outdoor destinations are doing to balance natural resource protection, accessibility and inclusivity.

The reporting didn’t always go the way I had hoped. For example, by the time I was able to visit the Peekamoose Valley Blue Hole in the Catskills, the season requiring paid permits had ended. Other timings were just right, like when I visited Acadia National Park in early September and had to get a permit to see the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. But even that wasn’t the perfect reporting scenario because I had never visited the mountain before the permit became a National Park Service strategy.

Like with all journalism, you do the best you can with the time you have, and you talk to as many people as you can. On Cadillac Mountain in Maine I found people who weren’t able to get a permit and had hiked up to see the sunrise. They had just missed the sun pop over the horizon, but they were still in time for a spectacular color show. I talked to the successful permit holders, happy to not jostle for a parking spot. You can watch a short time-lapse video I took of that here.

The last story posted online over the weekend, is one I know has more threads than the few I weaved. It deals with the question I posed to many of my sources: Does the conversation around visitors, crowds and overuse inhibit your conversations about inclusivity and accessibility? And similarly, how do you make visitors feel welcome while implementing permits, reservations and other strategies that inherently limit access?

My reporting led me to a paper by a socioeconomic specialist. The paper is one federal agencies reference when considering management techniques. It warned about using words like “crowds” and “overuse,” as they tend to have negative connotations. But what is crowded for one person may be sparse for another. The presence of other people, the specialist wrote, more greatly impacts those seeking solitude. I’ve been guilty of using these words, “crowds” and “overuse.” Since reporting this story, I have made a concerted effort to eliminate them, unless they are attributable. I try to use “visitor management” instead.

In reporting this story I had the chance to talk to students from SUNY Potsdam, who are from New York City. It was striking to me how close the park is when they’re in school, but how far away it is when they don’t have a car. I spoke about this with NCPR’s Emily Russell a few weeks back. You can listen to that here:

Jackie Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Campaign, I think summed it up best on how land managers think about inclusivity and access. “Equity doesn’t mean the same for all people,” Ostfeld said. “It means focusing on those who are most likely to be left out and finding ways to make sure they’re not.” You can read the story 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.

6 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    Yes, language does matter. The words “crowds” and “overuse” are being utilized in a very subjective manner. Neither has been defined, and they depend on some criteria being established to measure what was the situation before and after, and what number of visitors creates the problem that isn’t defined at this time. The one thing we do know without a doubt is that most High Peaks trails are in far better condition than they were decades ago and receive far better maintenance than they used to. Another thing we don’t know for sure are what the real numbers are for before and after. Nobody was measuring trail use accurately back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. At the moment the powers that be are saying we know overuse when we see it and therefore we must restrict use.

  2. Boreas says:

    “The one thing we do know without a doubt is that most High Peaks trails are in far better condition than they were decades ago and receive far better maintenance than they used to.”

    Regarding language, this statement seems pretty subjective as well. Can you define “far better”? Better in what respects? Erosion? Wildlife disturbance? Loss of wilderness character?

    Who is performing the maintenance? Is this maintenance guaranteed into the future? How much is voluntary? Most importantly, is there a long-term plan guiding said maintenance, or is it lipstick on a pig? Are we throwing time, effort, and money away on poorly-routed trails that are unsustainable and should be rebuilt/rerouted?

  3. Zephyr says:

    Far better = less eroded, better drainage, better routing, etc. I have photos of trails that I hiked back in the 70s that are just mud wallows that today have been redone and are perfectly good. The Adirondack Mountain Club, the 46ers, and others routinely provide both volunteer trail work and provide significant paid services to the State, supplementing what the paid DEC trail crews do. Many trails have been rerouted, and there is ongoing work all over the park. Places like Marcy Dam would be unrecognizable to someone transplanted there from the 70s when it was a sea of tents and campfires, every tree was stripped bare as far as you could reach, and the ground was completely flattened over a large area. Every leanto featured a garbage pit and many had a disgusting privy back in the day, usually missing its door and often the seat which had been burned for firewood. Every firepit was full of garbage. Summits were barren of vegetation and everyone walked off the rocks. People used the summit of Marcy as a latrine when I first went up there. Never understood the appeal of shitting on the highest peak. There were no summit stewards. Ask people like Tony Goodwin who have been hiking the peaks for more than 50 years and also has worked on many trails.

  4. Marjorie Boissey says:

    We can come up with other “words” and or “phrases “, but it is what it is. The parking issues, trail damage, and traces left behind show how “crowded” it is.

    • Zephyr says:

      Yes, but you can’t say there must be no trail damage and no traces left behind or you will also not be able to allow any hikers or other users. There needs to be some criteria established and then some actual data collected over a period of time to show that there is damage or traces beyond what has been deemed acceptable. I am reminded of a noise problem we have with local bars in the summer. The law just said something like excessive noise, and you could call the police every night and they would just say the noise isn’t excessive. They at least added a time when outside bands must stop playing. Adirondack Trails are now being pronounced “damaged” but compared to what? Most are in far better condition than they were 20-30 years ago.

      • JB says:

        Zephyr, you’ve touched on some of the complexities of the issue. Maybe it would help to quickly try to clarify some of the misconceptions about the term “carrying capacity” (e.g., as it is used in the APSLMP).

        First — and I think most would agree — it is not difficult to imagine why throwing away the concept of carrying capacity altogether (in any capacity: physical, biological or social) would be a bad idea. Once the management premise of a limited “capacity to withstand use” is gone, the APA will have finally lost all justification to say “no” to any management changes on Forest Preserve. The definitions of various APSLMP designations collapse; there is no longer a give-and-take in the UMP process between development and preservation; and even secondary criteria like limitations on road mileage in Forest Preserve will have lost their original rationale. Forest Preserve can’t call the proverbial police when its “carrying capacity” has been reached. The only mechanism for upholding Article XIV then becomes the courts. In other words, we start rolling back the clocks to 1972.

        Second, it would be useful to acknowledge that a focus on the distinction between subjective (“social”) and empirical (“biophysical”) carrying capacity can be misleading. In reality, terms like “carrying capacity”, “overuse” and “solitude” (which are codified into various federal and state definitions of wilderness) do not fit neatly into either category. Subjective perceptions vary, but in all cases they are based in concrete reality. Management for “solitude”, for example, undoubtedly has physical and biological implications. That debate here is essentially useless.

        Third, the assumption that recreational carrying capacity is relative — i.e., that it changes over time as infrastructure, technology, user behavior, and user expectation changes — is a fundamental misconception. Related is the argument that, in order to exist at all, carrying capacity must be empirically “established” through some type of post hoc impact assessment process. Notwithstanding the impracticality of assessing impacts upon the resource in some reasonably complete way — which, we must remember, is “forever wild forest” comprising a dynamic biophysical system under continuing human influence — no such unambiguous empirical process exists or ever will exist. This is not how conservation works. In fact — and this is evidenced by the specific and detailed definitions of designations in the APSLMP — carrying capacities were established, a priori, at the moment that lands were designated. In other words, wilderness designation *is* a type of carrying capacity. You can’t have one without the other.

        And finally, none of this is to say that some concrete metric ever existed for recreational carrying capacity — or even that multiple measurable quantities accounting for all aspects of carrying capacity can ever exist. Carrying capacity doesn’t live in the mind of the end user, but it isn’t empirical either. It is ultimately a necessary arbitrary construct — akin to a “legal fiction” — created to guide management agencies. Carrying capacity exists on paper, in the spirit and criteria of APSLMP, but also in practice — in management strategy that manifests itself in the form of parking limitations and appropriately limited backcountry infrastructure. The question guiding all of this is not how much degradation is acceptable — an impossible criterion to determine — or even what level of use is acceptable. The question is: what level of restriction is warranted by the APSLMP? This is ultimately to be decided by the management process, but by design, the answer to the question cannot be zero for any tract of Forest Preserve.

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