It focused on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s efforts to implement a Visitor Use Management strategy. Never mind that the DEC was supposed to come up with such a strategy over fifty years ago, kudos to the state for finally tackling this challenging and controversial issue.
Josh Clague, the Adirondack Park Coordinator who’s responsible for promoting sustainable use planning and implementation (a challenging task) kicked off the event, while Susan Hayman and Abbie Larkin of the Otak Consultancy explained the purpose of the meeting and facilitated the discussion. I was especially pleased to see Josh and Abbie, whom I met while working on the Adirondack Hamlets to Huts project. Josh was working on Complex Planning, looking at not just one Wilderness area but large areas and how they interact with each other. I’m excited that Otak was smart enough to hire Abbie to be their local point person, since she did her PhD work in the Park and has a wealth of land management knowledge. It bodes well for the project.
The meeting reminded me how long we’ve been discussing the High Peaks Wilderness. The 1977 High Peaks Advisory Report addressed visitor issues and cited an increased use of 700% in the previous 25 years. The first High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan was completed in early 1999 and updated in 2018. The issues in all these documents, including the work done in the most recent report, that of the 2021 High Peaks Advisory Group, are largely the same. They call for more funding, better data collection, improved trails, unified education, and some form of visitor capacity determination.
The DEC’s biggest challenge is finding a way to meet the legislative/regulatory demands of what wilderness must be, and still meet as many of the users' desires as possible. What do I mean by that? Users may want more parking lots, or no regulation at all. Heck, they may want keg parties on the mountain's summits. The land manager’s job isn’t to meet the users’ desires, but to allow as much human use as possible while maintaining a Wilderness environment.
Some people at the meeting pointed out that most visitors are happy with their High Peaks experience. I agree, but that’s not the point. I love watching high school football, but I don’t confuse it with the National Football League. Similarly, I love motorboating on Lower Saranac Lake, but I don’t confuse Lower Saranac with a Wilderness area. Many High Peaks visitors are confusing the High Peaks with a suburban park experience, but they shouldn’t, any more than someone should confuse high school football with the NFL. This isn’t my opinion, it’s what the legal definition requires.
An Adirondack Wilderness experience should be special. It shouldn’t be like a walk in a suburban/urban park. It should provide a sense of remoteness and there should be opportunities for solitude. Large rock-concert like crowds of people should not be found on the summits. These are qualities that make a Wilderness a Wilderness.
After fifty years of having led wilderness outings my wilderness philosophy has become refined. It’s not green enough for the Wilderness advocates but is too radical for hikers who love traveling outdoors and just want easy and readily available access.
So, what is my philosophy?
First, I don’t think all new lands acquired by the state need to be classified as Wilderness (the state’s most restrictive land classification.) Note how I use a capital W to denote officially classified wilderness. A lowercase w denotes lands that may have wild and Wilderness-like characteristics but aren’t officially classified as Wilderness. If a unit of state land is classified as Wilderness, then damn it all, it needs to be managed as such.
Green groups love it when I advocate for a wilder Wilderness but aren’t crazy about my lack of enthusiasm for designating new state purchases as such. On the other hand, many outdoor enthusiasts love that I don’t support designating all new lands as Wilderness, but bristle when I call for Wilderness restrictions.
Also, we need to understand the concept of “Carrying Capacity,” more commonly called “Visitor Capacity.” The concept, dating back to the 1930s, is how many people can visit a Wilderness Area at the same time before it no longer seems like a Wilderness. For some activities, the concept of carrying capacity is simple. For example, how many people can get on a tennis court before it’s no longer the game as we know it? The answer is simple. For Wilderness it’s more complex.
Not only do you have the question of how many people are too many before the trails get damaged, the water polluted, etc. (the physical carrying capacity). You also have the question of how many people can visit before, psychologically, it just doesn’t seem like Wilderness anymore (the social carrying capacity). It sounds subjective, and it is. But so is your doctor’s diagnosis of your symptoms. That’s why we go to doctors, for their professional opinion. That’s why we need Wilderness managers – to establish the criteria, collect the data, and make the decisions on whether or not we’ve exceeded the land's ability to provide a quality outdoor experience.
Many of the questions, and much of the discussion last week, were about whether there would be more restrictions to accessing the High Peaks. By the end of the night, it was apparent that many people favored convenience over wildness. Which is ironic because wilderness travel is inherently inconvenient. It’s a strenuous activity, frequently with heavy packs, living in uncomfortable settings. Convenience, like comfort, is a relative term.
Here are some of the convenience-based questions.
“If I get off early from work, will I be able to take a quick hike up Algonquin mountain or will there be restrictions?” Maybe, but perhaps it's smarter to hike one of the hundreds of other mountains that don’t have regulations, and only hike Algonquin when you have time to plan ahead. (By the way, “Plan Ahead & Prepare” is the number one Leave No Trace principle).
“Will they enlarge parking lots, so it is easier to find a parking place?” It depends. Parking lots need to reflect the visitor capacity. If the visitor capacity is already being exceeded, then you can’t enlarge the parking lot.
“Will I still have to get up at 4:00 AM to find a parking place?” Not if you’re willing to have permitting regulations that would guarantee you a parking spot. (Like you currently have at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve.)
One area of unanimity was the need for trails to be sustainably rehabilitated. In this case, we know what needs to be done, we just need the political will and funding to do it.
The most surprising remark was “Don’t try to fix what ain’t broke.” Every report and plan since 1977 talks about overcrowding, determining carrying capacities, the need for better trails, the need for more education, and the need to explore permit systems.
In other words, maybe things are working, but they’re not working as well as they should. The challenges haven’t changed. And if nothing’s done, things are only going to get worse.
So – in this case at least, if things ain’t broke they sure as hell need a major overhaul.
The 1977 and 2021 High Peaks Reports and management plans can be found at: http://www.backcountryclassroom.net/resources.html