Preserving our treasures

It’s not so lonely at the top. And when it comes to protecting and preserving one of New York state’s greatest treasures, that’s a problem that must be fixed.

A survey done last fall by the Adirondack Council found that people really DO love NY, particularly the Adirondack High Peaks region, where close to 80 percent of all trailheads leading there and to surrounding Wilderness areas were routinely above their capacity on fall weekends.

John F. Sheehan, the Council’s director of communications, reported that 35 parking lots designed to accommodate fewer than 1,000 cars frequently had more than 2,100 cars trying to park there. As a result, over 1,000 cars were repeatedly parked along roads, on private property, and in other unsafe locations.

Summer numbers are even higher, says Sheehan, because kids are out of school and families can find good, inexpensive recreation throughout a 6 million-acre playground that is the largest park in the contiguous United States — the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Great Smokey Mountains national parks combined.

Make no mistake, drawing large numbers into the Park is a good problem to have. But it is a problem. From a tourism standpoint, bringing people here is a good thing. But from an environmental and ecological standpoint, overuse of the wilderness areas — trails, campsites and summits — has already led to erosion, soil compaction, loss of fragile vegetation and impacts on sensitive wildlife.

The state needs to find a way to find a balance and keep it in check.

“What we can do is help spread hikers throughout the Adirondacks to mitigate the over-crowding and safety issues,” said Town of Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson. “An example of this is the governor’s plan to open up once again Frontier Town that will capture some of the hikers that would otherwise be heading to the High Peaks.”

Baby Boomers might recall Frontier Town, a western-themed fun park at Schroon Lake, near Lake George, that went bust decades ago after outliving its time. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to resurrect it — not as a theme park but as a campground, day use area and, more important, a place that can help guide more visitors into new public lands in other parts of the Adirondacks in an effort to mitigate the overflow elsewhere.

It’s little secret that some of the High Peaks are overused and the recent survey bears that out. For instance, the trail to Cascade Mountain — one of the more popular climbs — has a parking lot capacity of 73 cars. Last fall, that lot had an average of 240 cars parked there, according to the Council survey.

“They say you can follow a conga line up the trail,” Sheehan said.

The answer to that, as suggested by Newcomb Town Supervisor Robin DeLoria, is to expand opportunities, not parking lots. One way to do that could be to improve access and direct visitors to some of the newer public lands recently acquired by the state such as MacIntyre and Boreas Ponds Tracts in the southern High Peaks region.

Another idea would be to have some sort of reservation system similar to state campgrounds but without fees so hikers would know in advance whether a particular area was at capacity or not. Phone apps could be developed to let people know what’s available — or what else is available — and how to get there.

Finally, as with any good management plan, there’s public education. Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said his group’s programs and members “strongly promote education as an indispensable technique in stewarding the Adirondack Park.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has held four public discussions on the issue of land use in the High Peaks region and has gathered a wide range of ideas and suggestions. As has always been the case, the priority is to protect the wilderness while finding a way to balance it with maintaining a healthy economy throughout the Adirondack community. The state is expected to announce proposed actions soon.

Remember, too, that there are more than 2,000 miles of trails through these mountains to accommodate all levels of ability. Whether you challenge yourself on one of the 46 High Peaks or simply take the kids along an easy forested trail, stewardship of the land should always be the No. 1 priority. After all, we’re just guests here.

The Utica Observer-Dispatch

By Josh Bovee

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