PLATTSBURGH — We are having a party in the Adirondack Park, said William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council.
"It’s great, all these people are coming, we want even more. We want a greater diversity of people coming.
"But we need to manage it so it can be successful."
Janeway used to work as a State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regional director, where he oversaw both environmental conservation officers (ECOs) and forest rangers.
"I just can’t imagine them handling the level of use they have now," he told the Press-Republican in a recent editorial board interview.
"The staff we have are great. We do need more rangers, but it’s not actually as simple as that."
The council commends New York State for recognizing that overuse in the Adirondack Park is a problem and that the solution involves having a comprehensive strategy.
The tenets of that plan — based on established best-management practices and outlined in the council’s “State of the Park” report — are comprehensive planning; education and outreach; improved parking, information centers and bathrooms; improved trails and campsites; limits on use, at some times, at some places; and needed staff and funding.
The council has asked the DEC, specifically Commissioner Basil Seggos, to request a $5 million increase in next year's budget.
"That will pay for some of the planning, and expanded education and infrastructure, expanded trail work," Janeway said.
"And based on how well that works, that would inform scaling it out to the whole park."
Janeway said the DEC is trying to address the overuse problem with their hands tied behind their backs.
"They’re not getting any more staff, they’re not getting any more funding. And that almost dooms the effort right there.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo loves the Adirondacks, Janeway said, but is very committed to not expanding the state workforce.
So far, the state has done a good job of refilling positions when rangers retire, and the ranger force has returned to the levels it had at the beginning of the Eliot Spitzer-David Patterson administration.
"But it’s still at the same level when they had half the acreage to take care of and a fraction of the use that they had," Janeway said.
As a result, rangers spend most of their time on search and rescue.
JUMP IN VISITORS
Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan said in 2010, the Adirondacks had 10 million visitors.
"By last year it was up to 12.4 (million) so that’s like a 24 percent increase in just about eight years."
Social media is contributing to this jump, Janeway explained, along with just the beauty and appeal of the park itself.
"People are coming to see it and this is a wonderful thing.
"The only problem is that we’re not helping people figure out alternative locations, we’re not hardening the trails, we’re not teaching people how to poop in the woods."
Overuse in the park presents dangers for visitor safety and natural resources — E. coli in Adirondack streams due to improper waste, trail erosion and fragmentation of backcountry habitats — as well as degradation of the wilderness experience.
The Adirondack Forest Preserve is mostly divided between the categories of wilderness and wild forest, the latter of which allows motorized use where people are not supposed to expect solitude.
"But right now, the wilderness areas that are supposed to be managed are getting over-loved," Janeway said.
"We have plenty of other beautiful hikes with nice views, but people don’t know about them."
Overuse has occurred at a lot of popular hiking and climbing destinations worldwide, though generally in more remote locations like Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc, Sheehan said.
"We’re within a half day’s drive of 80 million Americans and Canadians, so the potential pressure from visitors is much bigger here and can fluctuate much more rapidly than in places that are farther away and take more planning and require more investment to get to."
In its “State of the Park” report, the council gave a thumbs up to the state for providing almost $400 million in aid to the Adirondack region which went to the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a visitors center on the Northway, a revitalization grant for the Village of Saranac Lake and other projects.
Janeway is not a fan of criticizing state investment in other people’s projects.
“Those are good investments.
“What we criticize is, (if) you can find $400 million for that, can’t we find five, $10 million” for the Adirondacks?
If funding does not come through, current trail disrepair will continue on steroids, Janeway said.
When Janeway did trail work in college, he would help harden and build a 24 inch-wide tread in places like the Cascade Mountain trail.
"There are places now where that trail is 20 feet, places where it's 30 feet wide."
That will continue to widen due to erosion.
"It decreases the hiker experience, hurts the natural resource and makes people go, 'Why should I come to the Adirondacks? Those trails are just terrible.'"
And that would have an economic impact.
The state has reported that Fort Drum, tourism and manufacturing are the top three economic drivers in the North Country, Janeway said.
"To sustain that positive economic tourism impact, there has to be investment in this stewardship to secure preservation."
Solutions to the overuse problem might include some reserved parking at trailheads, a tiered hiking license system with no or different costs based on residency, encouraging people to try alternative hikes or utilizing a shuttle system to limit the number of hikers at certain peaks.
Some places in New York have put a surcharge on the real estate transfer tax for homes above the median price, Janeway added.
If implemented in the Adirondacks, those costs would fall on seasonal residents, but benefit year-round residents.
"It would create money to hire more people to do park ranger, interpretive ranger type of work and boost the employment."
The council is not wed to any particular idea, Janeway said.
"What we are committed to is calling out the need for ... dedicated funding for the stewardship because you’re not going to preserve the Adirondacks if you don’t invest in stewardship."
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