Voice of DEC Region 5

Retiring spokesman always felt a connection to the outdoors, Adirondack Mountains

State Department of Environmental Conservation Public Participation Specialist David Winchell gives advice to a visitor on hiking destinations on Friday, Oct. 9 at Mid’s Park in Lake Placid. It was Winchell’s last day on the job, retiring after 33 years at the DEC. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LAKE PLACID — It was a Friday, Oct. 9, the beginning of a busy Columbus Day weekend. The sun was shining on David Winchell’s silver hair on the Main Street sidewalk in front of Mid’s Park. And there was a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke to tourists about hiking in the nearby woods.

This was Winchell’s final day on the job for the state Department of Environmental Conservation — 33 years, the last 19 as the public participation specialist at Region 5 headquarters in Ray Brook. That’s “spokesman David Winchell,” the public voice of Region 5, when he was allowed to talk on the record to the media. That didn’t happen much in the past several years.

“Where have you been hiking?” Winchell asked a woman from Ohio.

“We have a camp down near North Creek. We did Sawyer Mountain the other day,” she said. “We did the Flume today.”

What kind of new hikes was she looking for?

“Anything that’s short and pretty,” she said.

The DEC had been placing a table at Mid’s Park on Fridays for much of the summer and fall, distributing information about hiking destinations and safety guidelines. This educational effort was a part of a plan to reach the thousands of people fleeing cities during the coronavirus pandemic in search of outdoor recreational opportunities in the Adirondack Park. Winchell was temporarily filling in for DEC staffer Eileen Mowry as she stood nearby answering questions on Facebook Live.

“There’s two nice hikes in Tupper Lake on Route 30,” Winchell suggested to the Ohio woman. “Goodman Mountain and …” He started flipping through a binder to find the other one.

“Coney?” the woman asked.

“Coney, that’s it,” he said. “They’re both nice hikes. They’re not real hard. Nice views from the top. So I would recommend those.”

“I’ll have to try those out,” she said.

You couldn’t see the smile underneath Winchell’s light blue face mask, but you could see it in his eyes. He was happy — happy to help visitors find hikes in the woods, happy to steer them away from the overused High Peaks Wilderness, and happy — above all — that he’d be retiring at the end of this perfect work day in Lake Placid (he spent the morning packing up personal items in his office).

Winchell spoke with the News by phone on Nov. 2 about his time at the DEC.

The voice of Region 5

Winchell, 59, who lives outside of Saranac Lake, was named DEC Region 5’s citizen participation specialist in 2001. Over the years, the word “public” replaced “citizen” in the title, but the job remained the same.

“I’m both the eyes and the voice and the ears between the public and the DEC,” he said. “I’m not only getting information from DEC out, but I’m also, as a part of my job at public meetings and discussions, collecting information from people and passing that along to my colleagues so they can make informed decisions.”

Winchell grew up in Montgomery, a town just west of Newburgh in New York’s lower Hudson Valley. He’d always had an interest in the outdoors, fished and hunted with his father and spent time hiking, camping and backpacking.

It was during a road trip on the way to the Adirondacks when he first saw the logo for the DEC, shortly after the department was founded in 1970. The family had just made the exchange from the Thruway to the Adirondack Northway in Albany when they saw a sign on the DEC’s new headquarters on Wolf Road.

“And I asked my father, ‘What is that?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s the state agency where people take care of the fish and wildlife and help control pollution.’ And to this day, I don’t know if I said it out loud or just thought it, but I said, ‘I’m going to work there some day.'”

By eighth grade, Winchell had decided where to go to college — SUNY Cobleskill for two years and a transfer to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

Winchell began working for the DEC in 1987, in the Biological Survey Unit at the Wolf Road headquarters. In 1989, the unit moved to Ray Brook, and he followed the job to the Adirondacks. In 1993, he became a recycling specialist and then citizen participation specialist in 2001.

This interview would not have been possible before he retired.

“I look back at my dealing with the media over the past 19 years in this position and how that had changed significantly to the point now,” Winchell said. “There used to be times when Ellen (his wife) would introduce me to people … and they say, ‘I know you. You’re ‘DEC spokesman Dave Winchell says.’ Now the people taking over my position, people aren’t going to know who they are in the public. It’s going to be anonymous.”

Directives from the governor’s office over the years have slowly muffled — even silenced — some of the spokespeople from state agencies. And for the most part, the media is not allowed to speak “on the record” with state employees, even experts in their fields, for accurate and complete information for their stories.

Public information officers generally answer media questions “on background,” meaning journalists can use the information but not attribute it to a specific person, just their title — although “on background” attributions are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

When Winchell began in 2001, he was able to regularly speak “on the record” to the media, meaning “the information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name,” according to The Associated Press.

“It’s not as simple as it used to be,” Winchell said. “And I really think that it does a disservice to all of our employees at DEC because people don’t get to see what they’re doing, understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it like they did over the years. It’s one of the things I see as how things have changed so much, and I don’t think necessarily for the better.”

DEC mission: “To conserve, improve and protect New York’s natural resources and environment” and to prevent, abate and control water, land and air pollution, in order to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being.”

LPN: As the public participation specialist, what was your role in that mission?

Winchell: I think I assisted with that first part, but I was more important in making sure we got that second part of making sure the people of the state, particularly here in the Adirondacks — both those who are living here and those who are visiting here — understand what’s happening with how the DEC manages the Forest Preserve, how the Forest Preserve interacted with the private lands, including the communities in the Adirondacks, and how they can recreate on these lands while minimizing their impacts.

LPN: Why was this the right time for you to retire?

Winchell: I had planned on retiring next May. I felt that I’ve put in over 33 years with the department. … I felt I could leave the job in good hands. …

LPN: Did the pandemic accelerate your retirement?

Winchell: That was definitely part of it. … Working from home really didn’t suit me. It was this internal conflict of looking around the house and saying, “Boy, I’d like to go do that,” and realized, no, I’ve got to keep monitoring emails and phone calls and do my job. It just wasn’t working well for me, plus the whole anxiety over the pandemic.

LPN: How did you see the increased hiker traffic in the High Peaks unfold during the pandemic?

Winchell: Seeing and hearing the stories of what we were seeing in the increased usage just added to the concerns regarding the High Peaks and the usage up here. … For years, we had been doing outdoor recreation promotion, trying to get people to go out and explore. And it came to, there really wasn’t any place people weren’t going to. So we switched our messaging over to more focused on educating people on how to minimize, one, how to be prepared before going into the backcountry but also how to minimize their impact on the environment, the natural resources and other users.

LPN: Education is ongoing; it’s almost impossible to reach everyone. Did you ever feel that frustration?

Winchell: Oh definitely, particularly this year. We even had some people comment that education doesn’t work. And it does work. We have a whole new audience here that we’ve got to figure out how to connect with.

One of the things that also was a setback is last summer we started with the (Adirondack) 46ers a trailhead stewardship project at the Cascade Mountain trailhead. That was working well, and we were looking to expand it this summer to other trailheads. And because of the pandemic, we couldn’t do that.

So we had more people coming. These people couldn’t go to sporting events. They couldn’t go to concerts. They couldn’t go to restaurants. All the entertainment things they did in the past weren’t available to them. So the only outlet was going outdoors. The usage was up, and that’s with the Canadian border closed, and they’re usually 40 to 50% of the people, particularly in the High Peaks region during the summer. …

I think usage will still be up next year. Who knows where the pandemic is going to be. But I’m hoping it’s not up near as much as it was this year. We were overwhelmed, and it wasn’t just the backcountry that was getting overwhelmed. A lot of the frontcountry and communities were being overwhelmed as well.

LPN: Are you in favor of hiker permits in the High Peaks to limit usage?

Winchell: I really don’t know. I see the need. I really do think we need to do something different. … To really solve this issue, yes, we need to figure out how to control usage. Just how to do that, I don’t have the answer. … We really need to look at expanding our education of the users. … I think we need to better harden these trails (such as Mount Van Hoevenberg and the new Cascade Mountain trail) so it can withstand more use without significant damage.

… There’s no one silver bullet. All these things together, they’re going to take resources. We’re not going to get through this without really putting a significant amount of resources behind them. …

One of the things that everyone has to realize is that if a solution comes up, and we start planning for these things, it’s going to be five to 10 years before we really see the difference. It’s not going to change overnight.

LPN: As far as overuse, do you see the Forest Preserve in more danger or less danger than it was when you started at the DEC?

Winchell: The use has gone up significantly. One thing I would point out is the High Peaks UMP (unit management plan), the 1999 UMP at that point was really focused on the environmental damage caused by camping and backpacking. So they addressed that a lot, to the benefit of the High Peaks.

But since then, we’ve seen a huge rise in the number of day hikers and day users, just going in for a day and out. And that’s where the concern is now. So it’s a whole different set of tools we need to look at to manage for this type use. …

It’s nice to have people who love this place so much, that they want to be here. And I think through the Leave No Trace program, where you’re dealing with the authority of the resource and making people realize, “You love this place. Don’t you want to protect it?” And I think that’s one of the strongest efforts that we can make, the strongest message we can get across to the people who are coming here to utilize the backcountry, to protect it.

And I always use the example of the summit steward program and the summits where, even though we have seen that increase in usage of people going up to those summits, we haven’t seen a significant increase in damage. As a matter of fact, to the best of my knowledge, we’re still seeing expansion of vegetation and decrease in erosion on most of those alpine vegetation peaks.

LPN: What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard about in the backcountry?

Winchell: One of the strangest was a young man who decided that he wanted to get water from Lake Tear of the Clouds. It was in March. And he had cowboy-type boots on. He had a cotton hoodie. Just everything wrong that you shouldn’t be wearing to go on a hike when it’s still winter conditions in the High Peaks.

The folks at the HPIC (High Peaks Information Center) managed to convince him that he needed snowshoes. So he had snowshoes, but he didn’t know how to put them on, so he just carried them up.

He had a 5-gallon water bottle — like from a water bottle dispenser in an office — and he dropped that when he was crossing Phelps Brook and broke that. …

He go up on Marcy and just couldn’t go an farther. He called his grandmother — as I recall correctly, possibly even Hawaii — and tried to get help. It took them an hour to figure out what was going on and get him connected with our dispatch. At which point, it was dark and he wanted us to bring a helicopter up to pick him off the mountain. Conditions were poor, so even if we had wanted to take a helicopter up there, they couldn’t fly in those conditions.

He specifically asked, “Don’t you have someone like Bruce Willis or Rambo to hop in that helicopter and come up to get me?” Forest rangers talked him into putting his snowshoes on and headed back down the path. So he’s headed down the mountain while we’re sending forest rangers up. When they met up with him, they were talking to him and (asked), “What were you going to do for food?” He says, “Well, I was going to catch fish out of Lake Tear of the Clouds and eat that.” There are no fish there, one, and two, it wasn’t trout season yet.

They got back to the crossing at Phelps Brook and made him pick up all the broken glass to bring that out.