‘Long Ahead:’ DEC Calls for Consultants to Help Develop High Peaks’ Visitor Management Strategy
Submissions sought to determine âcarrying capacityâ on certain conservation forest lands
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting bids for visitor monitoring and management plans for the popular High Peaks in the Adirondacks and Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills.
Forest preserve areas in Essex and Greene counties will be studied for public planning and the development of recommendations to manage âheavy visitor use,â according to the DEC request for proposals. The work will be funded with $600,000 from the state Environmental Protection Fund. Proposals are due August 15. The contract will be for two years with the possibility of a one-year extension.
Appealing for outside help was one of the organization’s many recommendations High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group in its 55-page report published in January 2021. The group also recommended that the DEC use the National Park Service framework for managing visitor use twhich former Adirondack Park Agency board member Chad Dawson helped develop. Dawson worked with DEC for years trying 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 Range lakes. Dawson criticized the DEC when he resigned, saying he was elevating recreational facilities above environmental protection without studying the consequences.
The July APA meeting included a presentation from DEC that seemed to acknowledge this.
Josh Clague, DEC staff member and Adirondacks Park Coordinator, 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 the studies started. Clague and Kevin Prickett, an APA environmental program specialist, gave the commissioners an overview of the ministry’s request for proposals.
APA board member Zoe Smith asked Prickett to explain some of the terms the department and agency have used, including managing visitor use, carrying capacity, and limits of acceptable change. Prickett said carrying capacity is often described as the number of animals a land can have without doing too much damage. The National Park Service took this idea and applied it to parks: How many people can a park hold before natural resources are damaged? The limits of acceptable change, Prickett said, set the standards for visiting the park. A visitor use management framework helps land managers identify actions that bring a park back to its carrying capacity.
Prickett described it as going to an annual medical checkup. If a patient shows signs of high blood pressure, for example, a doctor can prescribe medication. Annual monitoring and data collection in a park are similar. This helps show if there is a decline in the health of natural resources, allowing land managers to take action to return a park to a healthy state. Actions could be trail maintenance, reservation systems, rerouting a trail, or assigning more stewards to the trailhead.
The DEC has never determined the visitor carrying capacity, also known as social carrying capacity, of the High Peaks, Kaaterskill Clove, or any other area, despite multiple management plans charging it to do so.
Clague said the hired third-party consultant will help the department understand the social carrying capacity of the two sites. He said it was a long time coming.
“It makes me cringe to say it out loud honestly, but we have to start somewhere,” Clague said. âWe will learn a lot.
The goal, Clague said, is to track where people go, what times of day and days of the week they visit, and how many people use those trails. Although the DEC has trail logs, Clague said the department struggles to collect and document this information on a regular basis.
The ministry will not focus on the carrying capacity of water bodies at this time, although it is a requirement in some of its management plans and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the 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 collected tablet computer data on tent locations, including ground cover, soil exposure and leaf litter. Survey work gives the agency baseline data on conditions. This 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 achieve this ideal.
In the Catskills, DEC focuses on trailless peaks, assess where hikers have bushwhacked before and see if staff can make improvements.
Research on the ecological impacts of recreation is happening concurrently at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Huntington Wild Forest.
Natasha Karninski-Keglovits, a researcher at the college, told commissioners that she and her colleagues had created an ecological scorecard of the Adirondacks. Scientists collect information on a range of topics, such as the sounds heard at a site or the types of invasive species that are growing. The dashboard assigns points to positive and negative results. Karninski-Keglovits said the idea is that the dashboard helps link the regular monitoring of a place and its management. It could be used in conjunction with departmental and agency visitor use management efforts.
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