Environmental science

‘Long-time coming:’ DEC puts out call for consultants to help form High Peaks visitor management strategy

This map shows the central High Peaks region where the state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to focus its visitor use management efforts via a third-party contract. Map courtesy of the DEC’s request for proposals

Bids sought on determining ‘carrying capacity’ on selected forest preserve lands

By Gwendolyn Craig

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting bids on visitor management and monitoring plans for the popular High Peaks in the Adirondacks and Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills.

The forest preserve areas in Essex and Greene counties will be studied for public planning and developing recommendations for managing “high visitor use,” according to the DEC request for proposals. The work will be funded with $600,000 in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Proposals are due Aug. 15. The contract will be for two years with the possibility of a one-year extension.

The call for outside help was one of many recommendations by the state-organized High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group in its 55-page report released in January 2021. The group also recommended the DEC use the National Parks Service’s framework for visitor use management that former Adirondack Park Agency board member Chad Dawson helped develop. Dawson has worked with the DEC for years in an attempt to get the department to create such a program.

Dawson resigned from the APA in December 2020 after the agency approved DEC’s plans to allow campfire rings at primitive tent sites in the Essex Chain Lakes. Dawson criticized the DEC upon his resignation, saying it elevated recreational amenities over environmental protection without studying the consequences.

July’s APA meeting included a DEC presentation that appeared to acknowledge that.

Josh Clague, a DEC staff member and coordinator for the Adirondack Park, said the lack of a park-wide visitor management system was “the elephant in the room not being addressed,” and this year’s state budget provided a boost to get studies rolling. Clague and Kevin Prickett, an environmental program specialist with the APA, gave commissioners an overview of the department’s request for proposals.

APA board member Zoe Smith asked Prickett to explain some of the terms the department and agency have used including visitor use management, carrying capacity and limits of acceptable change. Prickett said carrying capacity is often described as the number of animals a piece of land can have without doing too much damage. The National Park Service took this idea and applied it to parks: How many people can hold a park before there is damage to the natural resources? Limits of acceptable change, Prickett said, set the standards for park visitation. A visitor use management framework helps land managers identify actions that bring a park back to its carrying capacity.

Adirondack Explorer reporter Gwendolyn Craig asks recreation experts a series of questions about management strategies in the High Peaks and other hiking destinations around the United States. Panelists included Julia Goren, deputy executive director for the Adirondack Mountain Club; Peter Karis, vice president of parks and stewardship for the Open Space Institute; Peter Pettengill, associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University; and Jill Weiss, a researcher with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The event took place on July 20, 2022, at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Cascade Welcome Center.

Prickett described it like going to an annual doctor’s exam. If a patient is showing signs of high blood pressure, for example, a doctor might prescribe medication. Annual monitoring and data collection at a park is similar. It helps show if there are declines in natural resource health, allowing land managers to take action to bring a park back to a healthy state. Actions could be trail maintenance, reservation systems, rerouting a trail or stationing more trailhead stewards.

The DEC has never figured out the visitor carrying capacity, also called social carrying capacity, of the High Peaks, Kaaterskill Clove or any other region, despite multiple management plans charging it to do so.

Clague said the third-party consultant hired will help the department understand the social carrying capacity for the two locations. He said it was a long time coming.

“It makes me cringe to say that out loud honestly, but we need to start somewhere,” Clague said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”

The focus, Clague said, is determining where people are going, what times of the day and what days of the week they’re visiting, and how many people are using these trails. While the DEC does have trail registers, Clague said the department has struggled to collect and document that information on a regular basis.

The department will not focus on the carrying capacity of water bodies at this time, although that is a requirement in some of its management plans and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by former DEC Commissioner Tom Jorling.

The APA has started its own visitor management project at two primitive tent sites in the Adirondacks, Long Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area and Marcy Dam in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. APA staff have collected data on computer tablets about the tent sites including vegetation cover, soil exposure and leaf litter. The survey work is giving the agency baseline data of conditions. That information will help staff determine what the agency wants a primitive tent site to look like and decide if any management actions need to be taken to get to that ideal.

In the Catskills, the DEC is focused on trailless peaks, assessing where hikers have already bushwhacked and seeing if staff can make improvements.

Happening simultaneously at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Huntington Wild Forest is research on the ecological impacts of recreation.

Natasha Karninski-Keglovits, a researcher at the college, told commissioners that she and colleagues have created an Adirondack ecological score card. Scientists collect information on a range of matters, such as sounds heard at a site or the kinds of invasive species growing. The scorecard assigns points to both positive and negative findings. Karninski-Keglovits said the idea is for the scorecard to help link regular monitoring of a place and its management. It could be used in parallel with the department and agency’s visitor use management efforts.

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