In November of 2019 the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) convened a High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG), to address the problems and challenges in the High Peaks, which see increasing use, parking contention at trail heads and along roadsides, poor and heavily eroded trails and pressure on fragile ecosystems, including the state’s highest summits. Under the auspices of the DEC, this group will work for the next several months to develop a planning and management framework for use of the High Peaks and Giant Wilderness areas and the Route 73 corridor that runs from the Adirondack Northway to Lake Placid. Adirondack Wilderness Advocates is one of only three environmental advocacy organizations named to the HPAG.
AWA has a strong perspective on this work. We are concerned that others are crying “overuse” and leading with solutions before the problems and challenges with visitor use are understood and measured. We believe science, data and planning need to come first, even as short term strategies are tried.
Consistent with that, AWA has called for the following as part of our participation on the HPAG:
- Use of a robust visitor management planning framework. We champion the Visitor Use Management Framework – VUMF – developed by the National Park Service and successfully used in the Northeast.
- Actively including experts. The HPAG is a good start on involving a broad spectrum of interests, but much more expertise is needed, including in wilderness ecology, trail design, public safety, transportation, biology, other sciences and more.
- Leading with education: AWA’s mission statement begins with knowledge, which is fundamental to addressing visitor use. The success of the Summit Steward program and the positive impact from trailhead stewards last season serve as excellent examples.
- Engaging in an open, public process. The HPAG must not work in secret, but rather share meeting information freely and solicit public input.
- Expanding remoteness and solitude. This is a core AWA value that we will continue pursue across the Park, including in the High Peaks.
The bottom line is that the High Peaks need to be better protected as Wilderness. AWA will actively work to support your interests in protecting a magnificent, wild place.
Link to the DEC web page and the meeting summaries
10/08/20 Update- High Peaks Advisory Group Nearing a Final Recommendation
We wanted to provide an update on the State of New York High Peaks Advisory Group (HPAG), convened to recommend a plan for managing the High Peaks region in the face of increasing use. AWA has served on the HPAG since it began at the end of 2019.. Those interests include:
- ensuring Wilderness protection is the paramount requirement of any management plan
- adoption of policies to enhance remoteness and solitude
- trail assessment and an “all-in” approach to improving poor or damaged trails
- development of a smart, green transportation strategy to provide better service to visitors and help alleviate parking and trail head pressures
- increased visitor education
- implementation of a robust on-line application to manage users, allow them to register for hikes and provide them with relevant information (AWA is developing such an app)
- adoption of an adaptive management strategy organized around the concepts of Limits of Acceptable Change
- use of a proven management framework such as the National Park Service’s Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF: https://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov/VUM/Framework)
- improved data modeling and collection
- Decision-making based on upon science and data, not politics or anecdotal information.
By and large these interests are prevailing in the work we are doing.
As you would expect, the COVID-19 pandemic and New York State’s PAUSE program impacted our work. During the spring it caused us to refocus on short-term recommendations to ensure public safety, reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus and prepare for uncertain levels of visitation. This interim report of immediate recommendations was delivered to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in June (https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/hpagintrmrpt.pdf). Since then we have continued to meet on-line every two weeks and are nearing our final, comprehensive recommendations, due in the late fall.
While we cannot share details of our developing recommendation, we are confident that AWA’s interests and those of you, our supporters, will be well served. We’re excited by the direction we are heading. The key will be what the DEC does with the report. The State’s intentions have been sincere throughout this process and I commend their participation and willingness to let the stakeholder group lead. But the DEC has many priorities to meet, limited staff, and regulatory and statutory constraints within which they must operate. In addition, the State faces a massive budget crisis due to the pandemic and continuing Federal inaction. That means your activism and support will be critical in urging the State to adopt these recommendations under potentially dire circumstances. We must use our collective influence to ensure that the Adirondack Park gets the support that an irreplaceable, world-class treasure deserves, even more so in uncertain times.
The final HPAG report will be the most significant and comprehensive recommendation for the High Peaks Wilderness in decades. It will serve as a model for how to approach preservation and management of the rest of the Adirondack Park. That means it will deserve your full attention. When it is released we will post an analysis of the recommendations, how they align with AWA’s interests, how they can be implemented and how you can help to make them happen. Wilderness-loving New Yorkers can and will make the difference in seeing these recommendations adopted.
As we approach mid-February and four meetings in, the High Peaks Advisory Group (HPAG) is hard at work looking at short, mid and long range strategies and a planning framework for managing the High Peaks Wilderness. So far in our work on the group we have been impressed with the positive, good faith effort being made by all parties to address the myriad issues we face.
Real progress has been made on the specific interests for which AWA has been advocating. Among them:
- Employ the Visitor Use Management Framework (VUMF) as the planning framework for the High Peaks
A subgroup is evaluating the VUMF to recommend how it could be adopted for the group’s use. A decision on using the VUMF will probably be made at the next meeting.
- Actively include outside experts as needed
Outside expertise has been brought in on several issues. For example, we were able to bring in SUNY ESF Emeritus Professor Chad Dawson to consult on visitor information data gathering and surveying strategies. Another example is the evaluation and excellent draft report on recreational use in the Adirondack Park conducted by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Their draft findings have been released to the HPAG and are part of the discussion.
- Advocate for an open process with opportunities for public input
AWA voiced a strong interest in making sure the work of the HPAG was as open as possible and publicly available, including detailed summaries of every meeting and opportunities for public comment. The group agreed with this interest and the state has made meeting notes available and has a mechanism for public comment, here (http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/119187.html).
We expect the rest of February to produce a lot of progress towards AWA’s interests and will have another update soon.