Sunday, October 16, 2022

Important NYSDEC Forest Preserve Management Reforms, Part 2

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for development of a “Visitor Use Management” Plan for the Central High Peaks Wilderness Area in the Adirondack Park and the Kaaterskill Clove/Route 23A corridor of the Catskill Park. The RFP marks a major step forward in DEC’s efforts to evaluate and address a series of impacts to the natural resources, the visitor experience, and public safety due to high recreational use in these two popular destinations on the Forest Preserve.

These impacts include physical degradation of trails and other recreational facilities, impairment of water quality, crowded trails and summits, and parking shortages and unsafe conditions along busy state highways. Calls for adopting Visitor Use Management planning and programs, long a staple of the National Park Service, have been made by advocates and academics over the years. Issuance of the RFP implements one of the key recommendations of the High Peaks Advisory Group and the Catskill Advisory Group.

The DEC has struggled to establish a management framework that it can use to assess and manage public use impacts to both the natural resources on the Forest Preserve and the public’s experience on the trails. Seeking outside expert help is an important step forward and marks an attempt at serious reform for how the DEC manages the Forest Preserve. This is the second article in a 3-part series that looks at nascent Forest Preserve management reforms underway at the DEC. Click here to read Part One that looked at how state agencies plan for and undertake work on the Forest Preserve.

The RFP requires two concurrent Visitor Use Management (VUM) planning processes to take place over a 2-year period for the Adirondack and Catskill Park areas slated for study. Each process will address the experiential, social and safety aspects of visitor use, with particular focus on identifying desired conditions for visitor experience, environmental and ecological sustainability and public safety.

The DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) have struggled to develop, utilize, and implement a public recreational use assessment and management program on the Forest Preserve. This is something that the National Park Service has done for years, but its practice in the Adirondacks eluded state agencies. The decision to seek outside, expert help to develop and operationalize a VUM plan at two highly used areas of the Forest Preserve is an important step forward.

The DEC and APA have long recognized the need for this type of comprehensive management framework. Various Unit Management Plans (UMP) developed by the DEC and approved by the APA made feints at utilizing some kind of management framework. Here’s an excerpt from the 2017 Saranac Lake Wild Forest Area UMP, one of most recent approved UMPs:

The long-term approach for managing the SLWF uses a combination of three generally accepted planning and monitoring methods: (1) the goal-achievement process; (2) the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) model employed by the U.S. Forest Service; and (3) the Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) model employed by the National Park Service. Given the distinctly different, yet important purposes of these methods(particularly between the first method and the second two), there are clear benefits offered by employing a blend of these approaches here. (p 68)

In the Saranac Lake Wild Forest Area UMP, the DEC writes pages about its analytical framework, but in reality nothing was ever done. As shown above, the DEC pretended to have a management framework that was a special hybrid of various established programs, but nothing ever happened. For its part the APA used the DEC’s write-ups, recycled from UMP to UMP, to check boxes for compliance with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.

The 2018 High Peaks Wilderness UMP amendment took a stab at a new and improved “Wildlands Monitoring Plan” that committed the DEC to organizing and implementing a skeletal recreation ecology management program. Unfortunately,the new “Recreational Resources and Human Uses” section in High Peaks UMP amendment failed to provide important information or provide a schedule for development and implementation of this plan. While basing a lot of this framework on “Best Management Practices,” little useful information was provided for these BMPs. Subsequent requests for the protocols were met with “they’re not ready yet for public review.”

In the 2018 High Peaks UMP amendment, DEC stated that “the essentials for wildland management” are “planning, education and outreach, frontcountry infrastructure, backcountry infrastructure, limits on use when all else fails and resources both personnel and funding.” The DEC stated that it will rely on six Best Management Practices that include “planning; education and outreach; frontcountry infrastructure; backcountry infrastructure; limits on use; and, financial resources for both personnel and programs.” DEC and APA staff worked together to flesh out this program but nothing was ever operationalized in the field.

The upshot is that DEC-APA has never been any good at scientific monitoring of public use and impacts to natural resources on the Forest Preserve.

Visitor Use Management is a proactive and adaptive process that provides a framework for managing public recreational use in a variety of settings and natural resource conditions. It’s meant to encourage public access to public lands, be flexible and iterative, to experiment, and to utilize active scientific monitoring of natural resource conditions and public use experiences. The goal is to make outdoor recreational tourism and visitation sustainable and beneficial on the natural resources of a specific protected area. It’s meant to be a realistic method to manage high public use in a sensitive area in a way that sustains, if not enhances, that area’s natural or cultural resources.

Planning for the intended use of a trail or access system is critical to successful Visitor Use Management. Is this a trail that will see hundreds of hikers per day? Or will it see only a hundred in a month? The VUM framework bases a lot on desired conditions and standards. In an area as complex and dynamic as the High Peaks, the goals for the protection and public use of Allen Mountain are very different than those for Phelps or Giant Mountains.

Given the fits and starts of the DEC and APA on this issue, the decision to seek outside help is wise. The Interagency Visitor Use Management Council has a lot to offer and there are various consultants and academics that have helped to expand this field. There are numerous publications and websites about Visitor Use Management.

Click here for general information about the work of the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council that has worked to develop this program and put it to use.

Click here to check out “visitor capacity guidebook” that’s a manual for managing public use in wild areas.

Click here to check out the “Visitor Capacity Monitoring Guidebook” that’s a manual for monitoring public use in wild areas.

Their website provides other instructive papers and manuals available to provide background and information on the benefits of Visitor Use Management.

In accordance with the timetable specified in the VUM RFP, the contractor will clarify the project purpose and need; review the area’s purpose and applicable legislation, agency policies, and other management direction; assess and summarize existing information and current conditions; develop a project action plan; define desired conditions for the project area; define appropriate visitor activities, facilities, and services; select indicators and establish thresholds; compare and document the differences between existing and desired conditions and, for visitor use-related impacts, clarify the specific links to visitor use characteristics; identify visitor use management strategies and actions to achieve desired conditions; where necessary, identify visitor capacities and additional strategies to manage use levels within capacities; and develop a monitoring strategy and evaluation techniques.

These actions will be undertaken by a Core Team consisting of the contractor and staff from DEC, including a DEC project manager. In the High Peaks region, the Core Team will also include staff from the APA. The contractor will solicit public feedback on desired conditions and other project elements by conducting at least two public meetings or planning workshops for each project location. The contractor and DEC will work jointly to provide a public comment period on the draft report and to review and summarize public comments on the draft report. The RFP notes that additional outreach to stakeholder groups will be necessary to pursue consensus on critical components of the projects.

The final report, which must be completed within two years of the contract date, will be used by DEC to implement management actions; conduct monitoring and evaluate the effectiveness of management actions in achieving desired conditions; and adjusting management actions if needed to achieve desired conditions.

Bids for the VUM contract were submitted in mid-August 2022 and the DEC is currently working on finalizing the contract’s scope of work with the winning bidder. The DEC anticipates making an announcement about the contract this fall and its work will likely start immediately thereafter. Field work would begin 2023. The contract will run for two years, with the end of 2024 as the completion date, but the contract will allow for a one-year extension if necessary.

Many people and organizations in the Adirondacks and Catskills are hopeful that successful demonstration projects utilizing VUM management methods and programs can be organized for part of the High Peaks Wilderness and Kaaterskill Falls.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

12 Responses

  1. Dick Carlson says:

    I’m sure there is very little true user data on specific trails and areas in the Adirondacks. A wise move – get DEC out of the campsite business – turn it over to Parks and Recreation. This would free up a lot of resources for backcountry management and environmental concerns.

  2. Mike D says:

    This effort is overdue. But I want to point out that summit steward data suggested a decline of about 1/3 in high peaks hikers during the 2021 summer. This summer, 2022 it recovered a little but is well below the peak. So maybe some of the recent efforts are already working? Certainly efforts to get people to go elsewhere have been underway for years. Or maybe it’s just pandemic effects?

    One way to explain this is that current crowd controls in the high peaks are working to move people to other areas. Parking controls at the AMR and shuttles from Marcy Field to tail heads are, perhaps, linked to this decline. Both the AMR and the shuttle operations will have data good enough to show trends in head count. AMR has said they are not gathering any scientific data about impacts.

    Still, it will be good to have this work get done.

  3. Josh says:

    “Visitor Use Management Plan” is a euphemism for limiting use, and I suspect charging for that use. No two-year study is going to show the vastly reduced impact on most trails compared to the heavy damage done by fewer people decades ago. Yes, we can all agree there is a parking shortage and some trailheads are crowded on some days. The problem spots and times are completely known and understood and could easily be put into a report by DEC staff with help from the Adirondack Mountain Club. It is really hard to imagine what this outside consultant will learn that is not already known by anyone who has been hiking in the Adirondacks for a few decades.

    • Boreas says:

      The problem is you can’t take a firm course of action using anecdote, opinion, and wishes. Stakeholders are demanding planning of some sort. Data and metrics give planners something concrete to work with. It doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate, but quantifiable. For example, it is difficult to reduce an unknown quantity by 20%. Until people know and agree on what the dangers are to a resource, it is essentially impossible to come up with a plan to protect it.

      • Josh says:

        Of course it all depends in the end on what they want to do and the measurements will reinforce that desired outcome. Look at the AMR reservation system, widely hated in the hiking community. They asked people who used it and secured a reservation how they liked it, and voila! they liked it. Nobody asked the thousands who were chased away without even trying or the ones who couldn’t get a reservation. Obviously, lots of hikers love it just the way it is or they wouldn’t be going there, would they? So, who are the stakeholders demanding planning?

        • Boreas says:

          Read through Peter’s articles and DEC documents. Most stakeholders are mentioned, and usually their stance.

        • adkDreamer says:

          On point Josh. This is just another make-work effort the results of which yield answers that have been endlessly presented in various forms ad nauseam purporting to solve some alarmist issue ending with yet again more barriers to access.

          For those alarmists who do not get their way after pounding on the proverbial table for years – knowing full well that screaming ‘the sky is falling’ meme is their sole goal which if ever solved would leave them without a vocation – resort to pounding on the people of the State of New York and other visitors to our so-called wild mountain lands.

          • Dana says:

            Yep – just like the “alarmists” warning of global warming over the last few decades. I guess the old globe isn’t warming? People with new or opposing views who want to understand a particular situation are not necessarily alarmists. Rather, fear of knowledge illuminates the people wearing blinders.

  4. Todd Eastman says:

    Let the trails get worse so fewer people want to hike…😎 kidding

    With the costs for installing a trail like the new Mt. Van Ho being what they are, I can’t see any substantive trail improvements in the HPW. The trails as of now are worn down to rock and roots. Most erosion is in the past.

    Limiting hikers will prove to be unpopular…

  5. EDP says:

    My wife and I made the lazy decision to hike Giant last Saturday rather than choosing a less popular destination. We saw exactly one person on our ascent via Ranney only to be greeted by a scene reminiscent of the viral 2019 Mt Everest photo on the descent via Roaring Brook (we shuttled). While I am biased, having hiked Giant many times, and I wouldn’t compare the two trails in terms of dramatic scenery/views, on days like that, I would choose the former over the latter every time. My experience, however, is completely subjective and likely not shared by many of those in the Roaring Brook Trail conga line. It’s hard to conceive of arriving at a ‘wilderness experience quality’ consensus across the diversity of high peaks visitors.

    I agree with other comments that we probably won’t discover anything that active users of the park haven’t already observed/concluded but also agree that progress cannot happen without establishing the structure afforded by a comprehensive VUM.

    The issues are familiar to all. Some trails/summits are especially crowded and more so on holidays, during leaf season, weekends etc. Summit and trailhead resources and education programs are working(!)…more hikers does not necessarily mean greater environmental impact. Digital outreach, easier now than ever, must be expanded. Greater parking access is needed for stressed locations. Trail work, trail work, trail work. It would be nice to have unlimited funding but not every effort needs to rise to the unrealistic standards of Van Hoevenberg. Target/incentivize some of the desirable, but lesser-trafficked areas for re-routing and trail improvements/switchbacking. Build on the positive elements of the, arguably rushed and arbitrary AMR permit system, as a good POC, if, should all else fail, and similar efforts are deemed necessary elsewhere.

    The solutions are already established. Hopefully this effort yields an effective VUM plan that provides greater efficiency and more thoughtful allocation of resources.

  6. Boreas says:

    Seems to me there are three approaches to be taken:

    1.Bury our heads in the sand, ignore the situation, and ridicule the people with their heads above the sand.

    2. Adopt previous research done by federal and other agencies around the world out-of-hand and plan accordingly.

    3. Perform our own research on our own unique Park and its alleged problems.

    It seems many people are afraid to learn what research could illustrate – almost as if in the back of their minds they know the truth and the possible solutions. But research could just as easily show there is no serious problem, and perhaps only close monitoring of the most heavily-used areas is warranted. Solutions needn’t be oppressive or blanketed over the entire Park. Ultimately, and eventually, DEC has to make some decisions. It is indeed their responsibility to preserve the resource. Should they do this with no research or studies?? That would go over like a fart in church with stakeholders. Do we want more back-room negotiations to make policy? Same fart, different church.

    Other than Pandora, knowledge never hurt anyone.

    • Josh says:

      Nobody is against knowledge, but some of us are against wasting money on studies that will tell us exactly nothing about the situation not already known for decades. I’d rather see that money used to build a proper parking lot on the road into the Loj as the DEC and the Adirondack Mountain Club have tried to get done for decades. That would be one small step towards solving one of the known problems.

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