August 19, 2012

Affording wilderness access

Adirondack Interpretive Center still growing for recreational use

By KIM SMITH DEDAM, Press-Republican

---- — NEWCOMB — With gala celebration, new science and arts integration, the local visitor interpretive centers have re-established roots in the Adirondack Park.

The sites, in Newcomb and Paul Smiths, were founded more than two decades ago as part of an Adirondack Park Agency educational mission.

When the state divested its role in interpretation due to budget cuts nearly two years ago, colleges stepped in to keep the centers alive. Paul Smith’s College assumed maintenance and supervision of the center at Paul Smiths, and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry has reinvigorated the Visitor Center at Newcomb.

Now called the Newcomb Adirondack Interpretive Center, outreach is meshing nicely with both public and college programs, according to Paul Hai, program coordinator at the College of Environmental Sciences’s Northern Forest Institute, also based in Newcomb.


Interpretation is a critical piece of tourism in the Adirondack Park, Hai said, one that satisfies both curiosity and safety, as families and newcomers learn to traverse the wilderness. Finding ways to help everyday explorers reach deeper into the park is also key to economic growth in the rural mountain communities.

“One of the important roles we serve is to show how to explore the Adirondacks. At either center, people can learn how a trail works, how to follow a trail, what markers look like, what they are finding on a trail or on the waterways. The two centers are just critical in that role,” Hai said.

With 2 million acres of state-owned land open for public exploration, sometimes park guests have no idea what to expect. The visitor centers were designed to provide in-depth snapshots of wildlife, habitat, forest use, conservation, land use, trail management, trail safety and wilderness exposure in a relatively contained area.

Seeking new ways to reach visitors, directors at Newcomb’s center spent last year doing what the college does best, educating themselves.

The College of Environmental Science already had both undergraduate and graduate programs in wilderness interpretation. The center allowed them a place for hands-on training.

“At first, we were determined to learn the different ways visitors used the buildings on the property,” Hai said. “It was almost an experiment last summer to create lines of programming and see what the public responds to.”

Newcomb’s Interpretive Center found that people relished exploration on their own and returned to the lodge — and its warm fireside hearth — with a lot of questions, wanting to know more about what they discovered.

“What we’ve found,” Hai said, “is that the real drive for interest is very informal. The primary use at the center is the trails. Then, after exploring, people stop in and want to know about things they saw. So we reorganized to adapt a very informal, very inquisitive relationship for the guests. The structured programming wasn’t as strong an interest as it is about being out on the trail.”


Adjusting to fit the need, Newcomb’s center moved from two formal naturalist programs daily last summer to one this summer.

“So, this year, we have one strong naturalist science session every day,” Hai said.

“And we’ve had more program participation this summer than last. We doubled or tripled visits every month, January through May. June was double, and July was level. Overall, in the same months as last year, we had a 37 percent increase in visitors. We’ve seen this huge bounce back.”

Both park interpretive centers suffered from initial reports of closure.

“We believe the steep decline in visits came initially from the press about the centers closing, which was much more prevalent than the centers being reopened,” Hai said.

But both are fully open and welcoming the public.

Programming at both centers was reinvented with resources from the Adirondack Park Institute, a nonprofit organization formed to interpret the APA mission in 1989. At Newcomb, the Town of Newcomb and the College of Environmental Science are both vested partners.


New growth emerges where soil is richest, and the Newcomb Adirondack Interpretive Center has also become a hub for on-site forestry research, Hai said.

“The role of interpretation is an intuitive fit for ESF — we have graduate and undergraduate programs in environmental interpretation,” Hai said. “The assistant manager of the center this summer is a graduate student at ESF, in fact. And we’ve added elements to the college to improve training and make the center an extension of it — sort of like Paul Smith’s when they ran the hotel. It’s a perfect fit.”

Hai said that as assistant director, Environmental Science and Forestry graduate student Kristen Pasquino is working on the park’s first digital interactive nature guide, using Newcomb’s center as a test site.

“And our query is, how can we use technology appropriately to advance the things we find are important in environmental interpretation?”

Pasquino is building a website that interacts with digital technology from a cell phone or electronic device outside on the trails. 

“So our visitors will be able to stop along the walk and find hot links on their handheld device that will bring up another page to play the bird call of a wood thrush, for example, or describe the particular stage of forest growth,” Hai said.

The self-guided tour will also generate some research to help inform the field of wilderness interpretation.

“Then we will put in place a survey to measure the public impression of the integration of technology and wilderness,” Hai said.

Newcomb’s Center has also welcomed graduate students from other universities in the United States and Canada for field research. The College of Environmental Science and Forestry has owned and operated the adjacent Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb since 1932, and it has 80 years of forestry research data to share.

“McGill students were on site 21 days to conduct on-site forest ecology projects and learn about wildlife research techniques — it was experiential as well as research-based,” Hai said.

Lodging for visiting students is in Environmental Science and Forestry’s dormitories a half mile across Graveyard Bay, on Rich Lake.

“You could literally swim to work if you were motivated,” Hai said.

“One of the most powerful tools is that we can custom design programs to meet course needs, everything from mammal trapping techniques to forest ecology, wildlife ecology, to amphibians in vernal pools, from beaver research to wildlife management and bats.”


The centers are both succeeding at finding ways to interpret the park, whether by science, art or experience, according to Adirondack Park Institute board member Liz Thorndike, a former APA commissioner. 

The institute supports public programs at the interpretive centers. And in early August, they held a gala fundraising event at Paul Smith’s College, presenting Adirondack Environmental Education Leadership awards to College of Environmental Science President Cornelius B. Murphy Jr. and Paul Smith’s College President Dr. John Mills.

“Their leadership ensures continuation of programs and public access to hundreds of acres of Adirondack forest, waters, wildlife and vistas and miles of trails for children, adults — residents and visitors alike — and thus sustains an economic asset for reaching those communities,” Thorndike said.

The goal was to continue to build on the solid foundation put in place under APA management for the past two-plus decades. 

“Our new beginnings are building on some really broad shoulders,” she said. “And this is a wonderful, seamless transition to opportunity afforded under the colleges’ leadership.”


New beginnings at Newcomb’s center were celebrated this spring with a first-ever Rubber Loon Race, a wildlife version of the rubber-ducky races often held by fire departments as fundraisers. It is just one way to mix fun and science, Hai said.

“No one makes rubber loons. We actually commissioned the world’s first rubber bathtub loons. They are for sale,” he said, laughing.

Expansion at the Newcomb center requires resources.

“We are talking with the Department of Environmental Conservation about opportunities to create greater linkages with trails between resources in Newcomb — Camp Santanoni and Goodnow Mountain with its historic fire tower,” Hai said of the future.

“We are looking to reclaim an old trail on the eastern edge of the mountain. The college has a working forest on the northern edge, and we’re hoping to put in an interpretive trail there that explains what a ‘working forest’ is.”

The college hopes to add a boathouse to allow guided public access to Rich Lake. 

“We are looking to renovate the interior lodge room in the next six to 18 months, and we’re also expanding our classroom,” Hai added.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: 


Visit the following websites for more information about upcoming events at the Adirondack interpretive centers:

Newcomb Adirondack Interpretive Center

Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center