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Adirondack Council issues report on visitor use management for the Adirondack Park

August hikers in the Adirondacks crowd a trailhead (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Hikers in the Adirondacks crowd a trailhead (file)

The growing popularity of the Adirondacks has prompted several studies into what is called visitor use management planning. The latest released this week by the Adirondack Council finds that high use is not only affecting the wilderness, it is diminishing hikers’ solitude.

The Council commissioned a report in 2021 from Otak, an Oregon-based company that does research in sustainability and diversity in a number of areas including the environment. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has also contracted with the company to develop a Visitor Use Management plan. Adirondack Council Conservation Director Jackie Bowen says theirs is separate from the DEC and is different from other studies assessing Park overuse.

“There’s been different ones that have looked up at the Paul Smith’s area in terms of recreation management and ski touring. This one really focuses on the High Peaks Wilderness Area and takes rigorous science and data collection that happened over the course of two months and puts that into the quiver of knowledge that’s needed to manage the High Peaks area and to manage public lands within the Park. It’s really meant, it augments the amount of information that is available to do more appropriate management of those public lands.”

The state DEC awarded a Visitor Use Management planning contract to Otak in March. Bowen says the Adirondack Council’s report from the company will be shared with the state agency. Meanwhile, a unique aspect of the council’s report looks at hiker solitude.

“We wanted that included because the State Land Master Plan for the Adirondack Park dictates that solitude is an important aspect of wilderness. And so getting at what does solitude really mean and how can it be useful for land managers. And I would say every seven minutes that’s pretty frequent if you’re a hiker and you’re looking for a wilderness experience. But in terms of figuring out how much is too much that really comes down to the land managers and additional data that needs to happen in setting those thresholds as a part of the VUM process.”

Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer says there haven’t been a lot of high-quality studies on visitor use management for the Adirondacks.

“As far as forward long-term planning for how to manage public use on the Forest Preserve, where its most appropriate, what are the levels of people that we want to see, what are the experiences that we want people to have on the Forest Preserve, what is the capacity of the natural resources to withstand different levels of use, what types of trails do we need to facilitate that type of use? We’ve done it in a very fragmented way over the years at a very baseline rudimentary level, Forest Preserve unit by Forest Preserve unit. So this is an opportunity to bring some highly trained outside perspective of a consultancy firm that has done a number of these studies around the country.”

Visitor Use Management plans are in use at national parks and Bowen expects a modified version to be applied to the Adirondack Park.

“The brilliance of the visitor use management framework is the fact that it is meant to be adapted to the place and the landscape at which it is being used. So, even though it’s a federal framework I think that we are still going to land with a really adaptive and tailored management approach based on what we’re seeing here in the Adirondacks despite of it being a federal framework. And so I think that through the study that we commissioned and then the DEC’s process and the partnership with Otak moving forward really starts to set the foundation for this visitor use management planning process being adopted at a much wider scale across the Adirondack Park.”

The state has contracted with Otak through 2024 and Bowen hopes within three years an Adirondack Park Visitor Use Management plan will be implemented.