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Loving the Adirondacks too much?

Overuse named as No. 5 environmental threat to Adirondack Park

December 7, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The Adirondack Park is currently in its third influx of visitors. First, the Baby Boomer generation began coming here in the 1960s and 1970s. Then 20 years later, they began bringing their kids along for family vacations.

Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said the park is seeing a different kind of boom in the 2010s.

"Because of things like social media and blogging," he said, "people are taking photos and posting them online as an athletic challenge. People are talking about their adventures and telling others to do the same."

Article Photos

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 Lake Placid News recently polled environmental groups and colleges in the region and state agencies about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park. No. 5 was overuse, which means too many people hiking the same trails and paddling the same waterways in the Forest Preserve - protected state-owned land.


The problem

The Adirondack Council, an organization that uses science, law and political understanding to help protect the Adirondack Park, listed overuse on its list of environmental threats. Executive Director Willie Janeway said overuse is important to his organization because it is impacting natural resources, putting visitors at risk and degrading the Park.

"Because of overuse, water quality and wildlife habitat are threatened," he wrote in an email. "Roadside parking spills out of overflowing trailhead lots and causes a public safety problem along Route 73 and other local highways. Crowds may discourage people who expected more solitude to go to another park. Overuse degrades the very Adirondack Wilderness the state is responsible for preserving for current and future generations as 'Forever Wild.'"

"Forever Wild" is a term affiliated to Article XIV of the New York State Constitution. In 1894 -?two years after the Adirondack Park was created by the state Legislature - the Constitutional Convention declared state-owned land in the Adirondack and Catskill parks free of any development or construction forever. It's often referred to as the highest degree of protection of wild lands in any state.

"Overuse crowds people into just a few communities," Janeway continued, "and doesn't let the benefits of the popularity of the Adirondacks reach out to all communities. In short, addressing overuse is a priority for the Adirondack Council because preserving the East's greatest wilderness for current and future generations is good for water, wildlife and people, today and forever."

Woodworth leads the Adirondack Mountain Club, a nonprofit organization that is "dedicated to the conservation, preservation, and responsible recreational use of the New York State Forest Preserve and other parks, wild lands, and waters vital to our members and chapters." Though he agrees overuse is a problem to a few areas in the High Peaks, he said the perception is greater than the reality.

"The overuse issue has been hyped up to be larger than it really is," Woodworth said. "The reality is many areas of the eastern High Peaks are not experiencing overuse. Marcy, McIntyre (Algonquin), Mount Colden and some of the other peaks in the heart of the High Peaks are busy but not every day of the year. On popular weekends, yes, you can have too many people at the summit of Marcy. There are certainly issues that must be addressed at six to 12 of the High Peaks, but there are many places on the same kind of day where I can find solitude."

Woodworth said his main concern right now is climate change.

Overuse is also one of the main concerns for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Last summer, the DEC announced a multi-year, comprehensive effort to promote sustainable tourism and address public safety in the Adirondacks. The first phase of actions began in June and July. And because social media has become such a proponent of overuse, the DEC uses platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and blogging websites to suggest alternative activities for adventurers.


Route 73

Two of the most notable cases of overuse in the High Peaks region are Cascade and Pitchoff mountains on Route 73 in Lake Placid. On a nice summer day, the two trails will attract hundreds of hikers. Their cars fill shoulders along the narrow and windy road. Sometimes the cars are parked illegally and crowd the designated areas. Although the parking areas were designed to hold only 73 cars, a busy weekend will have more than 240 parked there.

Many of the hotels in Lake Placid and the surrounding area have been known to promote Cascade Mountain as the quickest and easiest High Peak to climb. If guests came to the concierge looking for a good hike, they'd send them over to Route 73.

"They don't do that so much these days, and we really appreciate that," Woodworth said. "Now they might recommend something like the Jay Range or Hurricane Mountain (in Keene). The overuse at Cascade is one of the reasons the Department of Environmental Conservation started experimenting in that area."

In September, the DEC and the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism - the tourism marketing firm in Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties - met with businesses who have face-to-face contact with hikers to discuss how to educate outdoor enthusiasts. They suggested telling people to plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate of other visitors. DEC and ROOST also made it clear: Don't send people to Cascade Mountain. Instead, they suggested sending people to Cobble Lookout in Wilmington, Poke-O-Moonshine near Keeseville and Rocky Peak Ridge in Keene Valley.

This past Columbus Day weekend, the DEC shut down parking along Route 73 for the second year in a row. This year, the state Olympic Regional Development Authority provided shuttle services from the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg to the trailheads.

DEC spokesperson Dave Winchell called the effort a success. In an email, he said ORDA safely transported 1,300 people to and from the Cascade Mountain trailhead without incident. He also mentioned that 300 people hiked the new trail to the summit of Mount Van Hoevenberg, which opened earlier that week. The plan next Columbus Day weekend is to connect the Van Hoevenberg trail to Cascade, Pitchoff and Porter mountains and shut down the trailheads along Route 73, thus eliminating a need to park there. Instead, hikers would park at the sports complex, a five-minute drive from the Route 73 trailheads - adding 4 miles, roundtrip, to their hike.

These decisions were the results of four focus group meetings the DEC held last winter in partnership with the towns of Keene and North Elba and a wide range of stakeholders. With input from DEC land managers, the meetings helped the agency identify specific strategies and actions to be taken in 2018 and 2019. A shuttle system to access trailheads between Exit 29 on the Northway and Lake Placid along the Route 73 corridor was suggested and discussed in DEC focus group sessions but has yet to come to fruition.

Partly to address overuse problems, the DEC actively promotes recreation in other areas of the Adirondacks. Just recently, the department unveiled phase one of the Frontier Town tourism hub in North Hudson. The site of the former amusement park, also named Frontier Town, has been converted into a recreation site for camping, horse backing riding, hiking and RVing. Though technically now part of the High Peaks Region, the 20,758-acre Boreas Pond Tract offers visitors views of Marcy, Haystack, Gothics and Saddleback.


Other parking

Parking issues aren't strictly limited to Route 73. Last fall between Labor Day and Columbus Day weekends, the Adirondack Council conducted a parking study and found that 35 parking areas designed to accommodate 1,000 cars had more than 2,100 cars trying to park at them during the peak weekends.

For instance, Ampersand Mountain, part of the popular Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge and also in the High Peaks management area, has parking for about 10 cars. The council found the parking lot and roadsides around it typically had 64 cars. Similar results were found for parking in Keene Valley, Elk Lake and Hurricane Mountain.

The DEC also permanently banned roadside parking at Roaring Brook Falls in St. Huberts in September.

A DEC press release said, "On busy weekends dozens of vehicles typically park in these sections. Due to the narrowness of the shoulder, occupants of vehicles open their doors into the lane of traffic and hikers have to walk in the highway to reach the trailhead. Closing these sections to parking will protect the safety of hikers and drivers."


Sustainable trails and challenges

The new trail at Mount Van Hoevenberg uses plenty of switchbacks, which has hikers zig-zagging up the mountain instead of trekking straight up it. It's often called a sustainable trail, one that will more easily resist overuse.

"The Adirondack trails were originally set up by guides back in the 19th century," Woodworth explained. "They would carve out paths by just going straight up. That's not good. When snow melts and it rains, that can create a lot of erosion. The trail basically becomes a stream bed, and eventually, it gets down to bare rock. The trail then widens, and hikers wind up walking on the vegetation. A proper switchback trail takes water out of the equation."

In 1918, Robert and George Marshall and their friend and guide Herbert Clark climbed Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington. This was the first time they summited a High Peak. After they were finished, they said, "Why not climb the other 45?" Thus the 46er challenge was born. The Adirondack 46ers club started about 20 years later in Troy with the help of the Rev. Ernest Ryder and parishioners Edward and Grace Hudowalski. Today, more than 10,000 people have climbed all 46 High Peaks, and the challenge is more popular than ever.

Now, other than the 46ers, there are the Saranac Lake 6er, the Tupper Triad and the Lake Placid 9er challenges. DEC officials say they like the idea of these new hikes, but they also realize that stewardship and education need to be expanded as well.

"Recent hiking challenges have directed recreation users to specific trails and routes and attracted hikers to lesser used areas in the Adirondacks," Winchell said. "At the same time, the popularity of these challenges has increased the number of recreation users who may not be informed about how to minimize their impacts to natural resources. DEC is partnering with the organizers of these challenges to educate the recreating public about ways to reduce their impact on the trails and adjacent natural resources. A number of these organizations also assist in stewardship projects on promoted trails."

Janeway said the 46ers club has reached a point where other hiking challenges help offset the flow of hikers in crowded areas.

"The new hiking challenges such as the 'Tupper Triad' and 'Saranac Lake 6er' can be part of the solution to overuse in the Adirondacks' greater High Peaks region," Janeway said. "For these alternatives to be part of the solution, and for the new challenges to not just spread negative impacts to more locations, these sites and their use need to be well managed. If there is an ethic of 'Leave No Trace' of a visit, and hikers are encouraged to try new places when popular sites are busy, then the challenges can improve hiking etiquette in general, and lower negative impacts."


Leave No Trace

"Leave No Trace" is a mentality that has become popular in recent years. In short, make your presence in the wilderness with as little impact as possible. Don't litter, stick to the trail, don't shout because it's noise pollution, etc.

The Adirondack Council doesn't have any authority over what people can and can't do in the Park, but it makes suggestions to lawmakers on how to best protect the wilderness.

"We encouraged the state to place the current limits on overnight group size and eliminate at-large camping in the eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area due to clearly visible damage to the forest and water, during the 1999 inaugural management plan," Janeway said. "For the only update, which was recently approved, we sought a parking reservation plan. We have kept pressure on the state by surveying hiker opinions, documenting trail damage and erosion. We have recommended improved communications with the traveling public to encourage trip planning and avoid overcrowding. All of this is part of our #KeepItWild campaign, which also included a series of three videos explaining the problem and proposing solutions. We are promoting those now on social media and video sharing sites online. And the Adirondack Council has and continues to promote 'Leave No Trace' principles and education and alternative destinations to the overused High Peaks."


Threats to waterways

The term "overuse" is often related to too many people on a hiking trail, and although the Adirondack Park is known for its mountains, its lakes and rivers are also popular.

Brendan Wiltse of the AuSable River Association said there are no real problems in terms of recreational overuse along the waterways he studies. However, a couple of years ago, there was a problem with people going to the bathroom.

"We started putting portable toilets along the West Branch of the AuSable because we were getting reports of cyclists, people training for the Ironman triathlon and fly fishers not having a place to go between communities," Wiltse said. "There were also some reports of waste along the side of the road, which is close to the river."

The portable toilets have solved the problem of waste in the river entirely, according to Wiltse. When he saw how well it worked near the river, the association put 11 more toilets along Route 73 near High Peaks trailheads.

Dan Kelting teaches at Paul Smith's College and is the executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, an organization similar to the AuSable River Association. Overuse is on the AWI's list of top environmental threats in the Adirondack Park. While the AuSable River Association studies the AuSable River's watershed, including Mirror Lake and Lake Placid lake, the AWI studies water bodies throughout the Park.

Kelting said overuse on lakes, ponds and rivers is an aspect often overlooked when approaching the subject. People and organizations tend to focus mainly on trails, especially in the High Peaks.

"Motorboats eroding the shoreline is one of the main problems," Kelting said. "You'll have situations when too many boats are on the water, and they're not following the rules in terms of speed and distance from the shore. It causes more wave action, which then creates more sediment in the water. It'll start to appear cloudy."

Kelting also said too many boats can create stress for wildlife: "The loon comes to mind. If boaters don't respect distance, that can interfere with their habitats."

Too many boats also increases the risk of invasive species.

"We're still studying Chateaugay Lake, but we're convinced there's been a spread of invasive watermilfoils," Kelting said.

Eurasion watermilfoil is a plant that tends to obscure lake surfaces with its stems and leaves. It look like a small evergreen tree.

Data from the AWI's 2017 stewardship study shows boat usage went up significantly in many bodies over a four-year period from 2014 to 2017.

Lake Placid had 5,059 boats. That's up from 2,006 boats in 2014, an increase of 763 boats per year, or 152 percent in four years.

Lake Flower in Saranac Lake had 2,378 boats. That's up from 997 boats in 2014, an increase of 345 boats per year, or 139 percent in four years.

Second Pond - the access point for Lower and Middle Saranac lakes and the main access point for the DEC's Saranac Island Campground - had 5,282 boats. That's up from 1,679 boats in 2014, an increase of 763 boats per year, or 214 percent in four years.

Upper Saranac Lake had 1,713 boats. That's up from 819 boats in 2014, an increase of 224 boats per year, or 110 percent in four years.


Similar problem at Blue Hole in the Catskills

In the Sundown Wild Forest section of the Catskill Park near Woodstock, there is a swimming area often referred to as Blue Hole. For a long time, it was considered a local spot off the beaten path. But in the past few years, because of online fame, Blue Hole started experiencing overuse.

In August 2017, the New York Times reported, "Over the last two or three years, cars have parked haphazardly on the shoulder of County Road 42, which runs past the pool, and revelers have hauled boomboxes, portable grills and coolers full of beer to its banks. The surrounding area has been strewn with garbage and, sometimes, human waste."

In 2016, the DEC made stricter regulations for Blue Hole: no fires, no camping, no glass containers, no generators and no radios. The department also created a set of regular hours for when people could visit the spot. Extra DEC rangers were positioned at Blue Hole to make sure people were following the rules.

In the Adirondack Park, although it hasn't been installed yet, a DEC spokesperson said a permit system for certain highly used trailheads and trails was suggested and discussed during the Adirondack focus group sessions.


When does it end?

Both the Adirondack Council and the DEC don't see an end in sight for overuse problems. They can try to alleviate it as much as possible, but it's not an issue that they expect to be rid of in the near future.

Winchell said safety to people and natural resources are always going to be top priorities.

"The attraction posed by the Adirondacks and the unique and high quality outdoor recreational opportunities provided here coupled with the large population of people within a day's drive ensure continued visitors to the backcountry into the foreseeable future," Winchell said. "DEC will continue to work to protect the natural resources of the Adirondacks while providing a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors. Some of the solutions to balancing these two goals include educating users and making trails more durable and sustainable. We are continuing our work with partners to define a more comprehensive approach to address this matter."

Janeway and many other environmental leaders tend to describe overuse as a great problem to have.

"People are the problem, but people also are the solution," Janeway said. "Overuse is a threat but also an opportunity. The solution is simple. With a major new state investment in Adirondack Park visitor management, planning, education, infrastructure and funding (funding and staff), access to the wild lands and the success of the world famous Adirondack Park can be sustained. With success, the Park can be more welcoming to further increases in visitation while protections are strengthened. The actions required have widespread public and user support, and will spread the economic benefits of outdoor recreation to more Adirondack communities."


Top 5 Environmental Threats to the Adirondack Park

The Lake Placid News recently conducted a survey of environmental groups and colleges with environmental programs in the Adirondack Park, plus the two state agencies that oversee environmental protection here, the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation, asking them to name the "Top 5 Environmental Threats to the Adirondack Park."

The News received responses from both state agencies, one college program - the Paul Smith's College Adirondack Watershed Institute - and five environmental groups: Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks.

The ranking was done by tallying up the most-mentioned threats and ordering them accordingly. The threat that was named the most times rose to the top of the list, and so on.



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