Thursday, June 30, 2022

DEC seeks public input to address adverse impacts of informal trails on Catskill High Peaks

On June 29, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos announced that DEC is working to help protect natural resources by identifying management solutions to address the adverse impacts of the expansion of informal trail networks on Catskill High Peaks (over 3,500 feet) previously considered to be ‘trailless.’ Informal trails created over time are having an impact and consistent with the Catskill Strategic Planning Advisory Group’s (CAG) preliminary recommendations to address increased public use in the region, DEC is seeking public input in this preliminary stage of management plan development.

“DEC is conducting a multi-year monitoring effort that is already identifying management concerns on many of these Catskill High Peaks,” said Commissioner Seggos. “DEC will be working outside of the conventional unit management planning process to develop a single document that will outline intervention strategies to help address adverse impacts in multiple areas as quickly as possible. We will be providing a variety of opportunities for public participation, including a public information session in the fall once the 2022 field monitoring season is complete.”

Informal trails are unplanned and can have many adverse impacts on the landscape. They are often very steep to cut the distance between two points and there are typically many duplicate routes in the same area. Some of the negative impacts of informal trails include loss of native vegetation, soil compaction, erosion, forest fragmentation, and introduction of invasive species into interior forest habitats.

These informal trail networks are especially harmful in high peaks as they can impact the breeding behavior and nesting success of endangered or special concern mountain birds that rely on these peaks as critical habitat. DEC also identified numerous locations where informal trails trample vulnerable populations of rare, threatened, and endangered plant species.

Erosion caused by repetitive hiking on steep,
unstable terrain. DEC photo.

Hikers can already take several steps to minimize their impact to trailless peaks by avoiding these areas after heavy rains or during mud season and following Leave No TraceTM principles. For instance, hikers should travel on existing informal trails and avoid dispersing into untrampled vegetation. From May through July, hikers should pay extra attention to where they travel and keep pets leashed to avoid disturbing vulnerable mountain bird species, many of which nest on or close to the ground and have nestlings or fledglings during these months.

Members of the CAG issued a joint statement: “We are all pleased that DEC continues to take a science-based approach to protecting natural resources in the sensitive High Peaks habitats of the Catskill Park. We look forward to participating in the public process to identify visitor use management actions that will help mitigate environmental impacts that resulted from the proliferation of informal trails at high elevations. We encourage all who care about the Catskill Park to provide their input as well.”

To learn more about the monitoring effort and to see previous reports documenting the adverse impacts of informal trails on the Catskill High Peaks, please visit DEC’s website. The public is encouraged to share their ideas or provide input on the desired condition they would like to see for the areas via email: [email protected] and at the public information meeting, currently planned for fall 2022 and which will be announced later this summer.

Catskill-area visitors are encouraged to Love Our New York Lands all year by practicing Leave No TraceTM principles and by recreating safely, sustainably, and hiking in suitable conditions based on weather and experience level.

Photo at top: Map of the project area. DEC photo.

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Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.




14 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    The impacts from herd paths are minimal in the sense of actual erosion and disturbance of habitat.

    The rush to regulate these trails is an example of an agency guided by non-profits that don’t have a clear grasp of balancing access and practical management…

  2. JB says:

    I’d be happy to provide some facts here. The fact that these informal trail networks in the Catskills pass directly through vulnerable populations of some of the rarest plant species in the Northeast, as well as habitat for some of the rarest animals in North America, has been well-known for years.

    There is no “Catskills Park Agency”, but the DEC still has a responsibility to prevent unique ecological resources from being degraded (as outlined in the Catskill Park State Land Master Plan). In this case, populations of state and federally protected plants face the real threat of extirpation. Make no mistake, outdoor recreation can and has contributed to species extirpations elsewhere, and even global extinctions.

    As evidenced by their own visitor use study, DEC is aware of this responsibility: “Natural resource concerns related to the potential impacts of IT’s [informal trails] on native vegetation and rare, threatened and endangered species have grown as the data collected has shown increases in public use of these undeveloped areas. The purpose of this study was to collect baseline data that will be used to identify indicators and protocols that can be incorporated into long term monitoring program [sic]. …This baseline data will also assist land managers and natural resource planners in their efforts to determine when the carrying capacity of an area has been exceeded or when natural resource impacts to a given area have become unacceptable.” (https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/traillessreport2019.pdf). The appendix to the document contains various excerpts from memoranda on visitor management for federal lands, as well — including, directly from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the striking assertion that “[r]esearch shows that even a few passes by hikers or more than one night of camping can substantially delay their recovery to natural conditions.”

    Note well the usage of the term “carrying capacity” — and concerns that it may be exceeded — above. Also note that the DEC estimates that the most heavily used of these “trailless” peaks received about 700 visitors for the entire year 2018. Now contrast this with the Adirondacks’ own High Peaks Wilderness Area, where there has not been so much of a hint of “carrying capacity” in any management objective — despite explicit reference to the concept in the official policy document for these lands, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. …And despite the fact that some peaks in that area receive more than 10,000 visitors per year!

    Thus, in summary, management agencies have a responsibility to make tough decisions. In this case, what that amounts to is an ultimatum between restricting the allowable number of visitors or building a formalized trail network — or both. Neither are ideal for anyone, including us — the potential visitor. But remember: just as conservation managers have distinct responsibilities, so do we. It is up to each of us to respect the boundaries of ethical stewardship, even when that means, in some cases, forgoing certain personal pleasures.

    • Pat Smith says:

      Thank you JB

    • Todd Eastman says:

      List the potentially impacted plants and animals…

      … thanks…

      • JB says:

        According to the report, the following state-protected species are known to occur in the vicinity of trails and affected summits:
        Plants: Aconitum noveboracense Gray ex Coville, Lygodium palmatum (Bernh.) Sw., Platanthera hookeri (Torr. ex Gray) Lindl., Polemonium vanbruntiae Britt., Triphora trianthophora (Sw.) Rydb.
        Animals: Catharus bicknelli (Ridgway, 1882), Somatochlora forcipata (Scudder, 1866)

        …For the listed plant species, 3 are state-ranked S1 (typically 5 or fewer populations and/or very restricted range in NY), and one is federally listed as threatened. All are very rare throughout NY and neighboring states and uncommon globally. The report points out that surveys are incomplete (other listed species could be present).

        But here’s the real point: there are likely more than 1,000 vascular plant species occurring in the Catskills region. For many, so much habitat has been lost to human development that there aren’t many places left for them to go. Shouldn’t awareness and protection of ecosystems be a priority for all those who choose to visit them to recreate?

        The report points out that trails are widening and new ones are being created due to increasing use. Given the amount of unique habitat in the area, frankly, it’s amazing that a more concrete management strategy wasn’t adopted earlier. For our neighbors in Vermont, for example, there are large tracts of state lands where all areas above specific elevations are effectively off-limits to any recreation. While that may sound extreme to many New Yorkers, these types of policies see little local opposition. Our state is surprisingly far behind the curve on visitor use management. Discussions that should have happened 50 years ago are really just beginning to happen now.

        • Todd Eastman says:

          I live in VT. Camping above 2,500ft is restricted; travel is not. State lands are a small percentage of wildlands in VT.

          Will a built trail mitigate the herd paths’ impacts?

          Is it reasonable to expect tax payers to not hike on land they have subsidized?

          The dimensions of trails are negligible in a landscape.

          Can you legislate the cessation of warming climate which is the driver of these species declines?

          • JB says:

            Todd, respectfully, you are patently wrong that climate change is “the driver” of historical or present declines in any of these species (with the possible partial exception of Bicknell’s thrush). Overwhelming evidence points to physical habitat destruction by human activity as the primary driver of population declines both in the species listed above and in most declining species globally.

            Second, NY state does not “subsidize” Forest Preserve — a small portion of state tax revenue is used to pay property taxes on Forest Preserve as a courtesy to local governments, a practice that was nearly done away with several years ago. I don’t see any effective difference between this and other state grant programs (other than the comparatively miniscule total cost of paying the “Forest Preserve tax”), nor do I see any reason why restricting recreation on Forest Preserve should garner more opposition than it would elsewhere.

            Third, I urge you to take a look at the linked document that attests to the fact hikers can indeed damage local flora and fauna. There are also some cogent arguments in favor of building trails in place of fragmented herd paths that often require intermittent bushwhacking directly through rare and unique habitat.

            But I do understand the arguments behind the conventional wisdom that building official trails can in fact increase use and degradation. The caveat, I think, is that most such increased use has arguably been more of a consequence of the subsequent advertisement of newly formalized trails rather than the actual construction of the trails themselves. In the age of the internet and GPS, herd paths are now impossible to “keep secret”, and thus not building formal trails often seems to become the “greater evil”.

            Is your concern that formal trails will degrade the resource further? …Or are you simply perturbed by the implication that recreation could damage habitat?

            And last, my impressions have been that Vermont FPR has often exercised more discretion than DEC in limiting access to the lands that it manages (not only limited to camping bans at lower elevations than is done in the Catskills or Adirondacks). My understanding is that seasonal closures of hiking trails is not uncommon in Vermont, whereas this is virtually unheard of in the Adirondacks and Catskills. But also, I was under the impression that VT does not build trails in many higher elevation portions of its state lands to discourage use. …Though I’d need to defer to you on that as a Vermont resident.

  3. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Overwhelming evidence points to physical habitat destruction by human activity as the primary driver of population declines both in the species listed above and in most declining species globally.”

    Yes sir! Plain & simple! We just don’t care and I don’t say that as just a passing comment to get my penny in. Just imagine how much worse things are going to get as the right wing extremists gain more and more control and we lose more protections, they’ll be less regulations……… Wallets first with that mindset! Or big political donors! Screw all things else. They just don’t care about things that have real meaning in life. Oh sure, maybe as a passing fancy they’ll fess up and say, “I do care”, but it always goes back to economy with them, their wallets. They just cannot get past themselves! As we speak species are disappearing and so what do we do? Business as usual! These people are still denying global warming even if glaciers are disappearing even if the scientist are saying they’ll be no ice in the Arctic in just 30 years……………….. The anti-science crowd, whose IRA’s are more important than Kermit is going to do us all in and we’ll let them get away with it most of us will, due to our ignorance, or the God we believe is going to come down and save us from our misery, or both! Shame on us!

    • Boreas says:

      Yeah Charlie,

      The ongoing conservative attack on the EPA should be proof enough that politicians, and now SCOTUS (now overtly political), are putting greed and politics (one in the same) over our ability to actually LIVE in our environment. I urge people to forget tribalism and vote as if their LIFE depends on it. Know the candidates’ views on environmental issues, and stay up-to-date with the science – not the political spin.

  4. JB says:

    I find the idea that we would need “good luck” to implement a management strategy in keeping with a democratic referendum perplexing and fascinating. Why would that be? As Charlie says, does neoliberalism doom us all? …As if it is an unstoppable force of nature? Is that why we need “luck”?

    I’d argue that this perspective misses the important realization that problems like overuse and sprawl are not inevitable facts of life; they are temporary side-effects of a society that is desperately trying to ignore the inevitable facts of life for as long as possible. (How many people know where the food that they ate today comes from? …Where the water that they drink comes from? …Where their waste goes? How many modern-day hikers are actually travelling to a destination, as opposed to walking in a circle [back to the car]?) Fast approaching “as long as possible”, it is ignorance that now needs miracles to survive.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      The question was how to mitigate the impacts from hikers on herd paths in the Catskill’s higher peaks…

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