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DEC launches hiker education campaign

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has launched a new campaign designed to educate nature-seekers about Leave No Trace principles and hiking preparedness, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos recently announced.

The campaign, “Love Our NY Lands,” is the latest effort by the DEC to address the ongoing impacts of ever-increasing hiker traffic on state Forest Preserve lands, both in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.

The campaign is expected to include in-person education at trailheads in the Adirondacks and Catskills during the peak hiking season, expanded stewardship programs, plus Facebook Live events and other outreach over social media, instructional videos on the department’s YouTube channel, as well as more public service announcements.

“We saw a huge spike in usage of the Adirondacks and the Catskills over the last 10 years,” Seggos said during a Facebook Live event. “Last year was almost a doubling of that, even accounting for the Canadian border being closed. The statistics show that … we’re not experiencing a blip anymore. This is not a spike that a year or two from now, after the pandemic is hopefully behind us, we’re going to see visitation decrease. I think we’re seeing the new normal.”

Seggos noted that even though it’s springtime, when tourism is normally slow, the state is “already seeing the numbers tick up.”

“Clearly we need to continue this message. The campaign will be very helpful,” Seggos said, after Lake Clear’s Eileen Mowrey, a Leave No Trace master educator, gave a presentation on LNT principles. “We need to constantly hammer this home with our partners.”

Last year, particularly on long holiday weekends, the number of hikers flocking to trailheads in the High Peaks region overwhelmed trailhead parking lots. The DEC reported seeing more instances of backcountry littering last year, and the handful of state forest rangers stationed in the High Peaks were frequently called out to help lost or injured hikers. A similar scenario played out the year prior, and the year before that.

State and local officials have been exploring different ways to address the impact of high use on protected state land for decades. The High Peaks Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan, first released more than 20 years ago, mentions many of the same issues officials are still trying to address.

Finding an answer to the question of how best to protect the Adirondack Forest Preserve from overuse while still preserving access is made more complicated by the variety of factors in play: the steadily rising tourism numbers, the diverse web of varying ecological and management zones, what many see as a lack of resources to address long-simmering infrastructure failures and staffing needs, and the hundreds of miles of aging trails with long stretches graded steeply, so controlling erosion is impossible.

The DEC created a task force in 2019 and asked this group to submit recommendations for ways to address these problems. Improved communication and hiker education programming was among the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group’s list of recommendations. Last year, the DEC opened three pop-up hiker information stations in the High Peaks, started issuing alerts about full trailhead parking lots via the state’s 511NY travel information system and continued to offer suggestions on lesser-used trails on its website. The state has also funded a hiker shuttle system to address hiker traffic issues at pinch-points along state Route 73.

Though it was expected to start service this year, that shuttle service is now not expected to start until 2022.

The Adirondack Mountain Club hailed the DEC’s new campaign.

“We are very pleased to see DEC acknowledging and formalizing the key role of education and outreach in managing increased use,” club Executive Director Michael Barrett wrote in a statement. “We’ve seen how successful this approach can be in our education programs and the work of the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program which has documented the recovery of alpine vegetation on the Adirondack High Peaks.”