Friday, September 20, 2019

Could a permit system save the Adirondacks?

The Adirondack Park is a spectacular natural resource. Six million acres of pristine public and private land ensure that we and our descendants have forever wild lands in a world where wild space is rare and in peril.

Despite considerable protections afforded by our state constitution the Adirondacks Mountains are under attack. But, in this case it’s not by development, deforestation, or mining. Instead, they are under attack by the very people for whom the Park is an asset and who claim to believe the vision of the Park: Outdoors enthusiasts, experienced and inexperienced, are overusing and misusing the Park to the point of putting Mother Nature – and themselves -- in peril.

More specifically, it’s the High Peaks Wilderness Area that is being abused. That territory covers just 5 percent of the Park but it contains 36 of the High Peaks (mountains exceeding elevations of 4,000 feet), making it the destination of a destination. Perhaps thanks to all of the free advertising, sense of community, or culture of one-upmanship of the social media age, more people than ever before are tackling the High Peaks. Registration records at various trailheads show that. In 2016, approximately 35,000 hikers hit the Cascade Trail, 3 times as many as 2010. In 2016, more than 25,000 hikers registered at Ausable, almost twice 2011’s total. Those are just 2 of many trails facing similar challenges.

Rather than spreading mankind’s increasing numbers throughout the park -- thus minimizing impact while still affording everyone the chance to appreciate Mother nature’s awesomeness -- this increase in tourism, as welcome as it may be for the economy, small businesses, and residents of an area that sorely needs it, has funneled humanity on the same trails and the same mountaintops creating environmental and public safety hazards.

It has led to erosion and destruction of trails and accompanying watersheds, an increase in the amount of litter found in forests, trampling of rare and fragile alpine space that took decades to reclaim, harassment and habituation of wildlife, and the loss of solitude that was once the crown jewel of the Adirondacks experience.

Humans are equally in danger as parking lots are overflowing and vehicles line county and state roads for miles creating significant traffic hazards while too many (dare I say a majority?) of hikers are ill-prepared for the physicality of the jaunts and the weather conditions that can dangerously change in an instant.

Take some time to go online to research recent incident reports for carry-outs, first aid, support and correction of environmental hazards undertaken by overworked NY Forest rangers in the High Peaks area. They will blow your mind -- some of the incidents border on the comical, though in all actuality they are frustrating, highlighting the inexperience and ignorance of visitors and the resources the state has to devote to them. Realize, too, that in all those day-to-day activities, those Rangers had to complete 98 significant search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks in 2016. Four years earlier, there were just 62 SARs there.

What can be done to fix these problems while still allowing the world to appreciate this unique wilderness?

For starters, the Department of Environmental Conservation should hire many more forest rangers (something this writer already championed in a July 2018 column).

Secondly, I think it is critical that the State institute systems of permitting and licensing for use of the High Peaks.

A free permitting system, whereby only X number of hikers would be able to use a specific trail during a given period, should be put in place to cut down on the overuse and force, through the invisible hand, use of trails less travelled but rewarding in their own way. It would be no different than user permits already in play at state campgrounds throughout the Park – if, say, the Eighth Lake campground is full, potential customers are sent away. So, it’s not as if quotas or caps are new things to the outdoors experience.

And, neither is licensing. For decades now, hunting and fishing licenses have been required, not only to help fund conservation and game management efforts, but, in the case of the former, also to ensure competency and safety, the same reasons New Yorkers now have to be licensed to use motor boats and jet skis.

A simple, free licensing system -- yes, free; this should not be a cash grab -- could be implemented using online tools, like any college or corporate training course. Knowledge and capability are powerful tools.  The licensing process would educate users of the High Peaks on critical aspects of environmental safety (Leave No Trace, what to do with bodily waste, why we stay on trails) and personal safety (what to wear, what to bring, what to do in the event of…). This certification would have to accompany a use permit.    

Permits and licenses may all seem antithetical to the typical libertarian bent of this column, but we’re talking about a public, not private, asset that needs protection to ensure healthy outcomes of the forests and waters and the people who are using them. Failure to address the issue of overuse and misuse will ignore the vision behind the Park and destroy the Adirondacks, a natural wonderland that belongs to all of us and deserves our stewardship accordingly.

From the 23 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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