LAKE PLACID — The High Peaks area of the Adirondack Park is undoubtedly in the midst of a years-long boom in hikers and visitors to the region. And with that crush of visitors comes a number of problems: parking, safety, search-and-rescue missions, and wear and tear on trails and other resources.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has started to tackle some of these issues in the form of parking bans and tickets, but the general consensus is that in some parts of the Adirondacks, there are simply too many people for the existing parking areas and trails.
One proposal that has been floated to try to limit the number of hikers venturing into the backcountry is use of permits. However, what a permit system may look like, and whether it’s needed at all, is still very much up for debate.
The DEC, which is charged with managing Forest Preserve lands, said there are several areas around the state where permits are being considered, including in the High Peaks.
“DEC is working closely with stakeholders, communities and partners to address issues associated with high use in the High Peak region of the Adirondack Park, and also other areas of the state, such as the Blue Hole and Kaaterskill Falls areas in the Catskill Park, and Zoar Valley in Western New York,” DEC spokesperson Maureen Wren wrote in an email. “It is important that use in these and any other public recreation areas of the state is managed in a manner that protects public health and safety and minimizes environmental impacts. The popularity of the Blue Hole and Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskill Park has led DEC to make significant improvements to trails and opportunities for public viewing at Kaaterskill Falls and institute a permit system at the Blue Hole.
“In the Adirondacks, the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, Giant Mountain and the Dix Mountains are the most heavily used backcountry area. There is significant congestion and few opportunities for solitude. Trailhead parking lots and interior campsites reach capacity on many weekends throughout the hiking season and trail degradation is expanding.
“Increased tourism in the Adirondacks is a nice ‘problem’ to have,” she continued. “DEC is formalizing our next steps to address sustainable (use) in the Adirondacks, as well as other areas like the Catskill Park, using input we continue to receive and is actively engaged in discussing options, including permits, with stakeholders and the public. All options are being considered at this time.”
Of six elected officials and environmental groups reached for this story, the need for permits is split evenly. Three green groups are calling for a permit system, and one environmental group and two elected officials say it’s not necessary at this point. Two of the groups — Protect the Adirondacks and the Adirondack Council — called for permits to be linked directly to parking spots, rather than requiring a hiker to carry a permit in the woods. The third group, Adirondack Wild, said it’s up to the DEC to determine what type of system should be instituted.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the number of hikers coming to the High Peaks has grown.
“We have seen a 200 to 300 percent increase in visitors to some popular trails just in the past two years,” John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council, wrote in an email. “The result has been more trash and human waste in the woods, wider and deeper trails, trampled rare plants, and diminished water quality where trails are eroding.
“The central portion of the expanded High Peaks Wilderness Area is ground zero, but the power of social (media) has amplified the park’s allure. It’s understandable that people want to come to such a beautiful place. But we are seeing record crowds across the park, even in fairly obscure locations. We are also seeing a higher percentage of people who are unprepared for the park’s challenging terrain and weather.”
“Wilderness management today is all about user management,” Adirondack Wild’s David Gibson wrote. “Setting wilderness aside and calling the job done ended several human generations ago. The State Land Master Plan mandates that every unit management plan analyze actual and projected use by hikers and other recreational users. It’s simply accepted wilderness management to manage users through a variety of means, including but by no means limited to limits on numbers, and it’s a legal requirement.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he thinks there are six to eight trails that need further management, including permits, although only on weekends and holidays.
“We think the state should explore a permit system for weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) and holidays June through September for four areas of the High Peaks/Adjacent Wilderness areas, including Giant Mountain for both trails from Rte 73, Cascade Mountain, Mount Marcy and Algonquin Mountain,” he wrote. “The permit system should be experimented with through a pilot program on a few mountain trails first for summer weekends and then expanded from there. We should start with the most highly used trails in the High Peaks.
“A permit system where a permit is issued for a certain mountain summit, say Giant Mountain, would have to be accompanied by a parking space. There should be a fee. The permit should be issued for the party. This is a good starting point to gather information about how a system may work. Parking areas should be numbered and there will need to be personnel at the parking areas to administer the program.”
Sheehan said the Council supports a similar pilot program that could be expanded, and added that a fee should be charged to ensure that those making a reservation actually use it.
“First, the state would mark every legal parking spot at each trailhead and limit the overall visitors to just those that the landscape can handle,” Sheehan wrote. “Some spaces could be left as first-come, first-served. The rest could be subject to a modest reservation fee that would be small enough that it isn’t a barrier or burden, but also ensures that those making the reservations actually show up.
“Park residents and state residents could be given first dibs on sites perhaps a year in advance — and the rest of the world could get a crack at the unclaimed spots, say three months in advance. This would prevent the mad rush of traffic to the most desired spots. It would allow people to plan ahead and find another location if they know they can’t find a parking spot in their first choice. Newcomb and North Hudson could draw much more of the overflow from Keene and Lake Placid and everyone would be happier.”
Permits not needed yet
Again, everyone polled agreed that the level of use in some places and at some times is an issue that needs to be dealt with. However, two elected officials and one green group say that a permit system is premature at this point.
“From our standpoint the problem is not ‘overuse,’ but usage spikes, when on a given day an overwhelming number of people may congregate at popular trailheads or parking areas,” Adirondack Wilderness Advocates’ Peter Nelson wrote. “These spikes are massive and hard to quantify, and they pose a very different and considerably more difficult problem than simply responding to increases in usage.
“AWA thinks a permit system is premature, if it is appropriate at all. Personally, I think the Adirondack value we have here of freedom to enter the woods in any reasonable manner, unencumbered by entrance gates or other restrictions, is a value we should not give up lightly. I’m skeptical a permit system will solve the challenges we face.”
Jerry Delaney, who is a councilman in the town of Saranac and president of the Local Government Review Board, which has a non-voting seat on the state Adirondack Park Agency Board, agreed that instituting a permit system may create more problems than it solves.
“Personally, I do not think a permit system at this point will do anything more than create a new set of problems,” Delaney wrote. “When attempting to change behavior, small incremental changes with a heavy dose of education creates better results, than a heavy handed approach. My concern is the highly negative messaging used around the High Peaks will make our visitors feel unwelcome. It is more productive to have positive discussions and find the best solutions.”
Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, Jr., whose town is home to much of the roadside congestion, also said instituting permits at this time would be premature.
“Carrying capacity is a function of infrastructure, and if we haven’t put the effort into the planning, education, and infrastructure, then we can’t just default to limiting access,” Wilson said. “We haven’t done the work to properly manage high use yet, so it’s way too soon to propose permits as the answer.
“I don’t think we should be charging a fee to use the land. However, I do think we should charge users a fee for the services that support their hiking adventures. For example, the town of Keene runs a shuttle and parking lot for access to the Garden. We charge a fee to ride the shuttle OR to park your car, and these fees go toward maintaining the road and parking lot, operating the shuttle, and providing toilets. If you scale this up, you can do a lot to manage the impacts of use on the High Peaks.”