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DEC hires Forest Preserve coordinator for Adirondacks

Cascade Mountain, in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, is in the state Forest Preserve. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation on Monday, Nov. 29 announced two new staff positions that will promote sustainable use of public lands in the Adirondack and Catskills parks.

The DEC appointed two “coordinators” — one for each park. Josh Clague, who joined DEC’s Forest Preserve Management Program 14 years ago, will serve as the Adirondack coordinator, and McCrea Burnham will fill that role in the Catskills. Both are longtime employees of the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, according to a press release from the DEC.

The coordinators’ primary work in their respective parks will be to organize the implementation of management plans, oversee common resources, negotiate challenges between jurisdictional boundaries, and help incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into educational efforts and park operations, according to the release.

The creation of the new coordinator position was recommended by the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group, a DEC-appointed committee formed in 2019 to look at the impact of increasing hiker traffic in the High Peaks and recommend short-term and long-term solutions to the DEC.

The HPAG submitted their final report in January, which included recommendations for forming a strategic plan and visitor use management plan for the High Peaks, establishing a management plan for resources, expanding public education and promoting stewardship in the High Peaks, and hiring new staff to coordinate between offices, initiatives and staff to execute those — and other — recommendations from the group.

The group also recommended the need to explore the feasibility of a hiker parking reservation system. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve partnered with the DEC on a pilot reservation system this year.

The DEC launched a second advisory group in the Catskills last year. While their recommendations haven’t been released yet, the new coordinator responsibilities are aligned with the HPAG report and discussions from the Catskills Advisory Group, according to the DEC release.

Josh Clague

Clague, originally from Oregon, lives in Rensselaer County in the Capital Region. Clague said that he moved to the East Coast after he met the woman who is now his wife during a college internship in Pennsylvania. Over the last 10 to 15 years of working and vacationing in the Adirondacks, Clague said he developed an interest in the park.

Clague said the DEC approached him about becoming the Adirondack coordinator sometime in the past month. He’s worked with DEC’s Lands and Forests Division for a little less than 14 years, and he said that he’s become increasingly aware of issues around overuse in the High Peaks through his position. He’s also formed a familiarity with partners in the park — stakeholders, environmental and recreational advocacy groups — and he said he understands their objectives and shares common ground.

Clague said that much of his time with the DEC has involved planning, which he says is similar to coordinating duties — seeking expertise and partnerships to achieve desired results. He said he’s looking forward to forming deeper connections with park partners, because he believes that a new dynamic is forming as far as the next chapter of forest preservation.

“Partnerships will be the way we get all this work done,” he said.

One aspect of that work will be implementing management plans. He said that necessary action starts by leveraging partners and stakeholders to identify “big” needs, whose help is needed to address challenges and what resources are needed to carry out management plans.

Clague said he’s got a lot of learning to do, and he’s looking forward to that.

Local green groups, including the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, have voiced their approval of the new coordinator position.

Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said he applauds the elevation of Clague and Burnham as coordinators.

“We look forward to helping them help the department fulfill its responsibility to protect and preserve New York’s priceless legacy of wilderness lands and waters,” he said in a statement.

HPAG representative and ADK Education Director Seth Jones said that ADK is excited to see such a “great response” from the DEC following HPAG’s report.

“Each recommendation put forward by these advisory groups will help improve protections for both the Forest Preserve and the people who enjoy it,” he said.

HPAG member and Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna said Clague will have a lot on his plate, and he thinks the DEC took a good step by creating a point person that can start addressing some of the issues the HPAG came up with. McKenna said he’d like to see Clague begin by assessing trail conditions and developing a long-term plan to make them more sustainable.

McKenna said that other key issues for the coordinator could include addressing the clustering of crowds in the High Peaks and improving diversity and inclusion in the park. Clague said that to start work on inclusion initiatives, he first wants to work with the DEC’s Office of Environmental Justice to gain a better understanding of the impediments around equal access in the park.