ON THE SCENE: Hiking reservations concern Keenites

Joe Pete Wilson Jr., Keene town supervisor (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Initial reaction to the recently announced three-year test of a reservation system for the popular High Peaks trailhead at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (aka Ausable Club) received widespread praise by many environmental leaders and initial shock, dismay and fears by many Keene residents, people living in the hamlet where the club is based.

Developed by AMR and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the rollout reservation system caught many by surprise.

“This has been needed for a long time,” said David Gibson, a leader of Adirondack Wild, Friends of the Forest Preserve. “This approach was known decades ago, put into the UMP draft, and then taken out. ADK resisted it, just as DEC Region 5 resisted it. I remember commenting in ’94, this is great; it’s important; it’s needed for high-impact places in the High Peaks. But by 1999, it was taken out. I think the AMR’s letter last year was critical; it forced the issue. I don’t know if the reservation system will be done well. I hope so. I know AMR is committed to it and will do their best.”

The trailhead provides access to such popular trails as Dial, Nippletop, Noonmark, Round Mountain, Gothics and the Great Range, and Indian Head with its stunning view of the Ausable lakes.

Every year, the number of people wanting to hike has exploded. Locals know all too well that the current situation is not only unworkable but dangerous. The parking lot is often full by 5 a.m. during peak season as people arrive earlier and earlier to get a spot.

David Gibson (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“Standing at the Roaring Brook Falls parking lot, just across from the AMR lot, was terrifying,” said Teresa Palen. “What you have is people coming down the hill; they see AMR on the left with a sign saying it’s full. They look to the right trying to see if they can pull into the Roaring Brook lot, and there’s nowhere to go. They are now stopped in the highway, and here comes a tractor-trailer down the hill. It’s insane.”

While the state Department of Transportation has placed no parking signs along state Route 73 to encourage people to hike elsewhere, hikers just started parking farther away, resulting in many people walking along the highway.

As a means of eliminating that problem, the AMR and DEC agreed to limited hiking to those reserving 70 parking spots. People biking or walking up or being dropped off without having a reservation will not be admitted at the trailhead. Missed by many, the DEC press release noted that exceptions would be made for Keene residents.

On Nextdoor Keene, the local community e-bulletin board, residents felt that locals shouldn’t have to go through a reservation system. People wanted to know if they can still hike without a reservation and, if so, how do they prove they are from Keene, as many seasonal residents who have property here live the balance of the year in other communities. Others wondered if the DOT would reduce speed limits on Route 73 near the AMR and Roaring Brook Falls trailhead.

As Gibson said, addressing the crowded and over-taxed trailheads, including for Giant and Cascade mountains, has been discussed for well over a decade, with proposals floated ranging from permits to a reservation system. The novel coronavirus pandemic forced the DEC to act. With international and national travel at a near standstill, people sought places to go. For many, the Adirondack High Peaks seemed perfect. The result was even greater numbers of hikers coming into the region last summer and fall than in previous years.

Another local frustration was that neither Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson nor Town Board member Teresa Palen was included in planning the reservation rollout.

“The town was not a part of the negotiation,” said Wilson. “It was between the landowner who has the easement, the AMR, and the state. I saw the details when they got released. Getting used to the new plan is going to take adjustment. It’s going to take education, signage and new infrastructure, all that kind of stuff to teach people how it works.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to run shuttles this year, especially with social distancing. You make a change in one spot, and it dominos down to several others. There are always unintended consequences to work out. Solutions have to include more than the town of Keene as our assets are limited.”

Though on vacation, John Schuler, general manager of the Ausable Club, who lives in Keene Valley, is a volunteer fireman and teaches a master chef cooking class for Keene Central students, responded to local concerns on Nextdoor Keene.

“The residents of Keene and Keene Valley will enjoy the same privileges as in the past,” wrote Schuler. “Locals with a valid ID will be allowed through the AMR Gate and are outside of the Hiker Parking Reservation system. Those being dropped off will need to let out at the AMR Hiker Parking Lot. There will be WIFI available. People will be able to use WIFI calling, texting, etc. I want to assure everyone that the AMR and DEC kept residents front and center during the process of developing these plans.”

Officials say more details are being worked on for access to local residents and will be announced shortly.

“I am glad that they are trying something out,” said Molly Lawrence of Keene Valley. “It’s a pilot, so I am sure they will make adjustments and figure out a way of identifying locals. My only regret is that they didn’t include in their discussions with Joe Pete and Teresa, both members of the planning committee.”

The no-cost reservations will be required May 1 through Oct. 1 this year. Reservations will be required for parking, daily access and overnight access to these specific trails. Visitors can make reservations beginning April 15 at www.hikeamr.org.

Walk-in users without a reservation or a valid Keene identification will not be permitted. Camping and pets are not allowed on AMR property.

The AMR parking lot will only be accessible between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. People wishing to depart later should make reservations for two nights or park at Marcy Field and use a bus shuttle.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)