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Summit steward program gets a boost

November 1, 2014
By SHAUN KITTLE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - If you've hiked in the Adirondack High Peaks, you've probably met a summit steward.

They're the ones who stand on top of some of the region's most-visited peaks in the summer, educating visitors on the delicate, tundra-like ecosystems that exist there. The stewards aren't just naturalists - they're also a line of defense between the fragile alpine vegetation and the potentially harmful boots of unwary hikers.

"These systems are incredibly delicate," said Adirondack High Peaks Summit Steward Program coordinator Julia Goren. "One misplaced step from a boot could set them back decades."

Article Photos

Summit steward Devon Reynolds explains the sensitive alpine habitat atop Algonquin Peak.
News photo — Morgan Ryan

The program is funded through grants and by annual contributions from the Adirondack Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Decisions about its direction and priorities are made jointly.

The funding gets stewards on top of Mount Marcy, Algonquin, Cascade, Wright Peak and Mount Colden from May to October.

Goren wants to do more with the program, but that's nearly impossible without more funds. Now there's hope, thanks to a donation from two longtime Adirondack visitors.

Christine Bourjade and her husband, Alex Radmanovich, put up $10,000 in August to start a Summit Steward Program endowment through the Adirondack Foundation called the #507 Fund. Bourjade is an avid hiker who said the goal is for the endowment to reach $1 million so it can be used to expand the Summit Steward Program.

Bourjade and Goren have been appealing to organizations and municipalities to support the endowment, and it's worked. After a month, it's up to $42,000.

In an email to the News, Connie Prickett, the director of communications for the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the organization anticipates contributing $10,000 to the endowment.

"These plants, some of which are actually mature trees no thicker than a pencil, are living in an environment of extremes - cold, snow, ice, wind - and are remarkably adapted to those conditions," Prickett wrote. "The summit stewardship program has been extremely effective in raising awareness about alpine habitat and encouraging hikers to stay on marked trails above tree-line to avoid trampling the plants or displacing thin soils. It's an effective 'people' solution to an ecological challenge."

The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) is also on board with a $5,000 contribution.

ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth emphasized the program's role in creating responsible hikers.

"The original program was to do those peaks that have that precious alpine vegetation, but recently we've gotten funding to put one on Cascade, which is not one of those peaks considered to have that vegetation," Woodworth said. "We've recognized the value of the teaching component, of educating the public so they become a factor in protecting the mountains. With additional funding, we can cover more mountains."

The Adirondack Forty-Sixers have also committed $15,000 to the endowment and the Adirondack Council has committed $1,000.

The Summit Steward Program was created in 1989 during a meeting in the dining room of the Adirondack Loj that was organized by botanist Edwin Ketchledge. The stewards took to the mountaintops for the first time the following year.

Bourjade met Ketchledge in 2004, just six years before he died, and he said something that ultimately inspired her to start the endowment.

"His worry was that things were the same," Bourjade said. "Even though everybody raves about it, the program can't plan in the long term. They've been in need of money for so long, and this year there is nothing, so I felt the timing was right to move forward, because what Dr. Ketch said in 2004 hasn't changed."

Goren stepped into her role in 2006, and a few years later she realized that strategic planning hadn't been done for the program since 1999. She called a meeting at the Adirondack Loj and began brainstorming a future for the stewards.

"We want to grow the program, and we want to grow it in some very specific ways," Goren said. "For example, the number of hikers we have in the High Peaks is really, really increasing. This is the fourth year in a row that we've broken the record for the number of hikers we've spoken with."

Summit stewards count the number of contacts they make, and the results speak to Goren's statement.

Cascade, a mountain many consider the easiest High Peak to climb, has experienced a dramatic increase in visitations. In June 2013, 785 people visited its summit during the seven days a summit steward was posted there. This year, that number nearly doubled to 1,471 during the nine days a steward was there.

Increases from last year's numbers were documented on Cascade every month this summer, and the totals for visits to Algonquin, Marcy, Wright and Colden also show varying levels of increase. In fact, the number of summit steward days was 99 in August 2013 and 89 this year, yet the number of total documented contacts still increased from 9,047 to 9,349.

"When I started in 2006, a pretty good year for summit steward contacts was 16,000," Goren said. "That was the average. This year, we're somewhere between 27,000 and 28,000."

Goren would like to see more steward days on the mountains they already cover and to see coverage expand to other popular peaks, like Giant Mountain. She said she understands that it might not seem important to pay people for day-long shifts on Adirondack summits, then notes that the program is working.

Photos taken on the summits decades ago show barren moonscapes that are practically void of vegetation. Today, those uninviting images have been replaced by gardens of green alpine plants, which are lined by stones to create pathways for hikers, gently encouraging them to look but not stomp. Strategically placed piles of rocks, called cairns, are also in place to mark paths and warn hikers of impending doom, like a cliff's edge, during times when visibility is low. That's all the work of the stewards.

Goren said endowment funds would also go toward research and monitoring projects in the alpine zones. If there's anything she'd like people to take away from the program, it's that the summits have more to offer than good views. They're living museums.

"It's a great thing to tell people on a day when it's completely clouded and there's no big view," Goren said. "If they look down at their feet, they have a window back 10,000 years, to when New York state was an arctic tundra. You go to museums to see pictures of these ecosystems, but here you can actually walk into it. It's right there."

For more information on the endowment, visit



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