RAY BROOK — The Adirondack Council thanked Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Dept. of Environmental Conservation for empowering a working group to address overuse of Adirondack Wilderness Areas, which issued a report (https://on.ny.gov/2YYl7an) that recommends immediate improvements as part of a long-term park management planning process.
“We are very pleased that the state’s working group recommended immediate actions to curb overuse and overcrowding on the Forest Preserve, embraced the 52 ‘Leave No Trace’ recommendations, including improved human waste management at trailheads and suggested better data collection for improved long-range planning,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “It is important to protect the wilderness from the overuse that harms forests and wildlife and enforce resource capacity limits that protect people and nature.”
Back in November 2019, prior to appointing the overuse working group, Governor Cuomo said, “It’s a legitimate issue, we have to work on it ... We want tourism, we want people to enjoy it. We want the economic development, but we want to make sure we’re not spoiling the asset, and that’s the balance we have to reach, and there are legitimate concerns.”
At the time, the Governor noted that big increases in tourism were good for the Adirondack economy, but had sparked a need for better management of people on the landscape, “The bad news is the tourism increase is actually creating issues. Parking issues, traffic issues and there’s a real question of what’s the maximum use of the resources without damaging the resources.”
The Adirondack Council also published a series of reports on crowds overflowing trail capacity, parking lots with too many cars, trails that were too steep for safe/sustainable foot traffic and solutions proposed by experts. The Council also credited state actions that helped.
Since then, the COVID-19 crisis has led many seasonal residents to flock to their Adirondack homes to escape high infection rates in large cities. Closed schools and businesses have allowed more people the time to recreate outdoors in the Adirondacks as well.
Add these trends to the recommendation that people “recreate locally” and avoid travel outside of their region for vacations, and the pressure on the Adirondacks has only increased. Roughly 80 million people live within a half-day’s drive.
“It’s only mid-June, but the trails are already jammed with hikers and the parking lots and woods and waters are spilling over capacity, showing new signs of wear,” Janeway said. “All of this is happening in the High Peaks and across the Park, even with the Canadian border closed due to COVID-19. When it reopens, visitor numbers are likely to climb again, rapidly.
“It is vital that we accomplish the short-term goals in this report right away, and lay the groundwork for the longer-term items that will take a little time to materialize.”
The working group has been meeting twice a month since last fall to prepare this set of recommendations. The 18-page report released by the working group to the Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos contains seven major recommendations, with actions plans for immediate use and longer-term strategies to better manage the park’s public lands.
Among the plan’s chief immediate recommendations: Better Parking Enforcement; Human Waste Management at Trailheads; Education and Messaging; Shuttle and Electric Powered-Shuttles; Leave No Trace Recommendations; Trail Assessments, Maintenance and Funding; Data Collection and Visitor Information; Wilderness and Trail Capacity Limits.
Each of the seven categories has an action plan listing the steps state officials and partners should take this summer, and long term, to address current and emerging problems.
Janeway welcomed the commitment by DEC and others to protect visitor safety, enforce wilderness resource capacity limits, preserve access to a quality wilderness experience, and sustain economic tourism benefits to communities.
The DEC plan includes a three-year test of wilderness resource capacity limits on private lands that access backcountry areas negatively impacted by overuse to “protect the natural resources, provide for public safety, and ensure the long-term preservation of the wilderness character of the site.”
The pilot program would run for three years, and could be replicated at other sites.
Longer term recommendations include incorporating the recommendations of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics study of the park’s visitor management needs, as well as identifying the need for a planning framework that could help shape the long term management of the wilderness areas across the Park.
“This is not the end of the discussion, but just the beginning,” Janeway said. “There is room for a lot more public participation in building the components of a better management system. We think the working group got everyone off to an excellent start, and we thank the group’s members and everyone who submitted comments and suggestions.”