Disperse or Sacrifice?

Standing atop Hurricane Mountain, I look out to the northwest and spot Whiteface. It’s immediately recognizable with its ski sloped streaks, and if I look hard enough, I can see the castle built so FDR could reach the summit – a tiny speck from this distance. I wonder how many people are standing at that summit, staring back at me. The top of Hurricane is quiet. It occurs to me that two vastly different wilderness experiences – both valuable – can exist within eyeshot. With the issue of trail overuse, I wonder what the best management strategy is: should we attempt to disperse more people to peaks like Hurricane, or should we attempt to condense them into already high traffic areas with infrastructure, like Whiteface (so called ‘sacrificial zones’)?

View from the top of Hurricane (Photo Credit: Sarah Magee)

When discussing my question with DEC official David Winchell and Forrester Tate Connor, both were of the mindset that dispersal is the best option. In fact, on Columbus Day weekend, officials spoke with hikers at rest areas and suggested possible alternative hikes to help spread out the traffic. Heavy amounts of foot traffic wears on trails, but Connor points to user experience as the most compelling reason for dispersal. He suggests that if you could take first time hikers and put them on less traveled paths like Vanderwhacker, they will learn proper hiking techniques in a more durable area, and have a completely different perception of how to interact with nature. “If your baseline is a 20-foot trail with 50 to 60 people around you at the summit, that changes everything after that,” Connor says. Winchell also makes an economic argument for dispersal, stating that “dispersal to other communities can help community economics.”  

Rocci Aguirre and Emily Liebelt of the Adirondack Council further the dispersal argument. “The concept of a sacrificial area focuses on consuming rather than being sustainable,” says Liebelt. If we designate sacrificial areas of the park, we will use those areas until they are a “shell of what they once were,” and then promptly move on to destruct the next area. “The sacrificial argument speaks to a lack of imagination and a lack of resources,” says Aguirre.

But resources are lacking. A discussion with Tony Goodwin of Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) revealed just how time, labor, and monetarily intensive it is to complete trail work. Goodwin is of the “sacrificial area” camp of thought. He jokingly estimated that, “$250 will pay for two steps.” If you can concentrate users into one area, you can focus your trail work. He points to the trail up Cascade as an example of success. Extensive work was done on the trail in the mid-80s, and “although it looks more worn than 30 years ago, it has stood up well,” despite seeing 600 hikers a day. Along with focused trail infrastructure, rangers, stewards, and foresters can also focus where they enforce and educate.

Ultimately, there is a limit to how much control one can have on where hikers go. As Winchell said, “the High Peaks has a mystique and provides a certain experience.” Goodwin agrees, “the fire tower peaks are nice, but no way can you claim they’re equivalent to the High Peaks.” People are naturally drawn to certain areas and experiences. In this way, we can only exercise so much autonomy over the sacrificial area versus dispersal outcome. So what’s the best course of action? Take individual responsibility when hiking. Educate. Educate. Educate. And as Aguirre says, “there has to be a public sense of ownership that these places deserve to be managed.”

A New Kind of Hiker

In the past three to four years there has been a surge in the number of hikers in the Adirondacks. With this increase comes the littering of powerade bottles and energy bar wrappers, and according to Forrester Tate Connor, “an increase in human waste at an alarming rate.” Uneducated hikers defecate near water sources, leave their bodily waste unburied, and/or blatantly drop their human waste on the side of (or, in some cases on…) the trail. “We’re starting to see thresholds,” said Connor. The increased traffic intensifies the erosion problems on trails “that are laid out incorrectly.” In addition to the trails themselves, DEC official David Winchell discussed how the septic system at Adirondack Loj failed on Labor Day due to overuse. However, the problem lies not just in the numbers. The use of social media has crafted a new type of hiker – one that is often underprepared and uneducated.

Litter on a trail up Baxter
(Photo Credit: Jack Anderson)

While this influx of hikers feels like a modern issue, director of Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) Tony Goodwin notes that we are situated in one of “three distinct surges in hiker use – each one of which caused concerns about potential overuse.” According to Goodwin, the first surge occurred in the early 70s – spurred by “glossy magazines devoted to backpacking” and better equipment. It wasn’t until 1974 when gas prices tripled, that eventually the number of visitors puttered out and didn’t increase for 15 years. The second surge occurred in the 90s due to a cultural focus on “fitness, money, and leisure.” Charter busses ran, hauling swarms of 45 to 50 people to the Adirondack trails. To address this, group limits of 15 were set – a limit dubbed, the “van standard” (named so, because a typical van at the time could seat around 15). Unit Management Plan (UMP) implementation reduced use for a couple of years. The third surge is the one we are familiar with today. The cause is something Tate Connor, Tony Goodwin, and David Winchell all independently agree on – social media and technology. In an era where a photo can be taken and shared with hundreds of people in a matter of moments, individuals can view their friends’ adventures and decide, as Connor put it: “that’s a cool picture on Cascade. Let’s go!”

“Until we get the numbers, we can’t say this summer broke records,” said Connor. “We had amazing weather throughout the summer, and that combined with social media led to a perfect storm for overuse.” Tony Goodwin echoed Connor, stating that “the Internet and cell phones have put a whole new face on hiking.” When others see “pretty pictures people post of where they’ve gone,” they feel compelled to explore the same places.

Not only has social media sparked the increase in hikers, but, as Goodwin pointed out, with new technology, hikers feel they have to prepare less. For example, technologically dependent hikers will arrive at a hike without looking over a map. They instead take a picture of the map at the trailhead on their phones, which, as Goodwin said, may die mid-hike. Connor laments that many unprepared individuals could be avoided if they received their hiking information from reputable organizations like the Boy Scouts, not the internet.

The lack of education reveals itself through statistics on search and rescues. “Last year we hit 100 search and rescues in the High Peaks region,” said Winchell. “From 2011 to 2015, there was a 60% increase in search and rescue from the previous five years.” As a result, forest rangers spend more time on search and rescue than education, creating a terrible feedback loop.

Although the surge in hikers may create environmental pressures, it is an economic relief. “The primary reason people come to the Adirondacks is outdoor recreation, and the primary form of recreation is hiking,” said Winchell. “Local businesses like the hiker traffic,” said Goodwin.  Because of this, I believe we must learn to work with visitor increase rather than attempt to stifle it. We must look to build more durable trails, create more education outreach, and perhaps use creative parking sticker systems as Goodwin suggests. In listening to Tony Goodwin talk about ATIS and the building of sustainable and resilient trails, I couldn’t help but think what he said could be extended to building a sustainable and resilient park: “It goes slowly….it takes time, but if done right, it lasts a long time.”