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High Peaks planners submit proposals

Group recommends more parking limits and enforcement, hiker education and trail work

A crowd gazes at the High Peaks from the summit of Giant Mountain in Keene Valley in September 2017. (Photo provided — ADK summit steward Vin Maresco)

The state-appointed High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group has released its recommendations for mitigating the impact of increased hiker traffic in the High Peaks wilderness.

The group’s new 18-page report — supplemented by 25 pages of information from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics — offers a variety of proposed solutions to parking, human waste and environmental issues spurred by historic levels of hiker traffic in the High Peaks region. A parking permit or hiking permit system is not among those solutions.

The DEC published the report on Monday, more than two weeks after it was filed. This report includes short-term solutions. A different report on long-term solutions is forthcoming.

The group’s report is the result of at least eight meetings held behind closed doors and on private teleconference calls throughout the last six months. The group also put out a call for the public to submit comments and recommendations.

The advisory group was created by the DEC last November, following a summer season that saw waves of hiker traffic on good-weather days overwhelm local resources. The effects of the busy season were compounded by a roadside parking ban along state Route 73 implemented by the DEC last May. The ban was designed to address public safety concerns, but it ultimately caused confusion and frustration as visitors arrived with nowhere to park, or parked illegally despite “no parking” signs. The advisory group was asked to formulate a “strategic planning framework” that would include policy recommendations designed to accomplish five main goals: ensuring the public’s safety, protecting the trails and natural resources, providing visitors with a good outdoor experience, supporting the local economy and making science-based decisions based on data.

In its new report, the advisory group has suggested the state further limit parking availability in certain areas along Route 73, including the Rooster Comb Mountain trailhead parking lot in Keene Valley and AuSable Road, near the AuSable Club in St. Huberts; step up parking enforcement during peak hours, specifically 7 to 11 a.m. on good-weather days; consider increasing fines for parking violations; kick-start a pilot program with a private landowner with access to backcountry areas to test wilderness resource capacity limits; and streamline communication and collaboration between state and local agencies.

The group also hopes to see funding for a town constable or parking enforcement officer position; a comprehensive plan for informing hikers of Leave No Trace practices, shuttle schedules, trail conditions, coronavirus-related safety recommendations and parking availability; trail assessments and maintenance plans; research on the feasibility of an electric shuttle system, and funding for an intern position to compile and analyze visitor use data.

“In reaction to the public desire to be recreating outside in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, public use continues to increase on trails in the High Peaks region even this early in the season,” the report reads. “HPAG (High Peaks Advisory Group) believes this higher volume of use should be anticipated for years to come. Visitor use of and access to public lands, trails, and associated recreation facilities are vital to the state’s recovery and should receive increased resources even in these difficult times.

“The recommended actions captured in this interim report are components of a larger, long-term strategic planning effort that complement each other to be effective. The recommendations for immediate actions in this report will provide the framework for long-term recommendations in HPAG’s final report later this summer.”

Some of the group’s recommendations — such as the need for better hiker education, more funding for trail maintenance and stewards, and more data — echo those shared by “stakeholders” in a private, invite-only brainstorming session the DEC hosted last year in Keene Valley.

The advisory group includes Adirondack Council Director of Conservation Rocci Aguirre, retired DEC counsel Sandra Allen, Keene town Councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen, Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman and Willsboro town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland, Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Seth Jones, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO James McKenna, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates co-founder Pete Nelson, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Assistant Professor Jill Weiss, Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr., and Charlie Wise, owner of the Mountaineer outdoor gear shop in Keene Valley. Representatives of the state DEC, Department of Transportation, and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation also participated. Michael Pratt, CEO of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, was on the initial list of members in November, but his name was not included in the final report.

“I appreciate the significant time and effort that the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group have devoted to thoughtfully developing this interim report, and their commitment to continue their work until a final report is issued,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement. “With the increase in public use of the High Peaks, it has never been more important for DEC and our local partners to work together to protect these public lands for future generations by promoting sustainable recreation.”

Both the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council praised the group’s recommendations on Monday.

“This is not the end of the discussion, but the beginning,” Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said. “There is room for a lot more public participation in building the components of a better management system. We think the working group got everyone off to an excellent start, and we thank the group’s members and everyone who submitted comments and suggestions.”

The full report is available at http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/119187.html.