A new study of one of the Adirondack Park’s most popular hiking trails into the High Peaks Wilderness Area shows that currently levels of use are degrading the trail and the sensitive ecosystem around it, creating unsustainable levels of damage according to the Adirondack Council.
“What this shows is an unacceptable level of change occurring on and around the trail to the summit of Cascade Mountain,” said the Council’s Executive Director William C. Janeway, who co-authored the study, along with Conservation Associate Ryan Nerp. “Heavier-than-intended recreational use of the trail is wearing it down, trampling fragile alpine vegetation, damaging the forest and diminishing water quality. These are the classic signs that a trail system needs management intervention to prevent permanent harm. These findings reinforce that the state’s decision to build a new sustainable Cascade Mt. Trail is the right one, and underscore the investment needed for sustainable tourism and preservation of the Adirondack Wilderness.”
Noise from human activity is also recognized as particularly disruptive to wildlife, which is an area currently under study, the report notes.
Many Forest Preserve advocates believe damage can be mitigated by hardening surfaces and improving drainage, through redesign and reconstruction, by placing limits on use, or through some combination of those methods.
The Forest Preserve is protected by the New York State Constitution’s famous “forever wild” clause. Use of the Preserve has risen steadily for decades, increased dramatically with the advent of social media and an increase in those seeking to become Adirondack 46ers. It jumped sharply in the past few years as people sought release from COVID-19 lock-downs and sought to escape cities. The Council’s recently released 2021-22 State of the Park report said that the Adirondacks have become an increasingly important wilderness refuge for the entire Northeast.
Overuse and overcrowding have caused documented damage in numerous popular hiking destinations in the Adirondacks and Catskills Forest Preserves and led to a dramatic increase in the number of rescue missions carried out by NYS Forest Rangers.
Under New York’s Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, officials are required to assess the carrying capacity of each unit of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and limit public recreation to match that capacity.
Instead, the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation have in many instances allowed increases in recreational use with little or no consideration of past changes or sufficient baseline studies to confirm current conditions.
“You can’t tell how much something has changed in five years unless you document its current condition,” Janeway said. “Managing millions of visitors to this park requires care and attention to details. We are the caretakers who inherited this national treasure and who will pass this park along to the next generation. We owe it to our ancestors to care for it as wisely as they did, using current science as our guide.”
The Adirondack Park is the largest park in the contiguous United States and it protects the world’s largest intact temperate, deciduous forest ecosystem. It contains 90 percent of all motor-free wilderness remaining in the Northeast.
The Cascade Trail offers spectacular views of the High Peaks and a relatively short trip to the summit. However, the trail is steep and while rebuilt by the Adirondack Mountain Club in the 1980s, it was not built to sustain new higher levels of hiker traffic.
Like most of the Adirondack Park’s mountain trails, it was worn into the slopes of the mountain’s forest by constant use. Sustainable trails are built to ascend gradually, along the most sturdy and sustainable pathway, and therefore have a greater capacity.
“Proper management and protection of the ecological integrity of mountain summits and Wilderness areas requires managers of protected lands and waters (New York State government) to assess their potential for outdoor recreation, establish their ‘carrying capacity,’” the report notes, “ and implement management actions to protect visitors, the resource, and the wilderness.”
Carrying capacity addresses how much visitor use can be accommodated in a specific area without unacceptable impacts to the environment or visitor experience. That means determining what types of changes are acceptable and which are not.
One method of determining carrying capacity is to establish indicators and standards of quality in order to guide site analysis and management. Trail design and construction, education and other actions can impact or increase the carrying capacity of an area.
The Limits of Acceptable Change sliding scale is a tool for establishing quantitative indicators that can be used to measure human-induced changes to the landscape. By monitoring these indicators, it is possible to determine the extent of damage over time and use them to make informed management decisions.
“Personal and anecdotal observations suggest that some of the characteristics of wilderness set forth in the High Peaks Wilderness Area management plan have been lost due to the high number of visitors,” said Nerp and Janeway in the study. Photography can help with the baseline assessment, they said.
Some well-cared-for locations are now showing signs of recovery from prior damage, they noted.
In order to monitor the condition of soil and vegetation above treeline, photo point monitoring is conducted periodically by the Summit Stewardship program – a cooperative effort between the state and not-for-profit organizations. Some locations have data going back as far as the mid-1960s. This process was last carried out in 2015 and was again scheduled to occur during summer 2021.
A steward hired specifically for this study was hired to reshoot photographs of trail and alpine vegetation, matching previously determined locations and perspectives. Analysis of these pictures compared to those taken in 2015 will determine change in vegetation, soil, and bare rock. The monitored locations above treeline have been subject to extensive physical work, and public education in an effort to limit and change hiker behavior.
The study concludes that the capacity of the Cascade trail has been exceeded.
Actions have been, and are being, taken to mitigate some of those impacts. The development of a Visitor Use Management Framework would provide the tools needed for continue monitoring and adjustment, the report’s authors said.
“The new Cascade trail the state is building will increase the capacity for use, but there will still be a limit. If in addition to rebuilding trails we don’t expand education, field more forest rangers, and set and equitable enforce limits on use at some locations at some times, the overuse crisis will continue to get worse,” Janeway said. “We have seen how changes in management have protected sensitive areas of the summits over time. We need that same level of care and stewardship along the entire trail, and on other trails in the High Peaks, and beyond.”
Read more about overuse in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves here.
Illustrations, from above: Crowding on Cascade Mountain (courtesy Dan Plumley); a chart of visitor growth at the Cascade Mountain Trailhead; and Cascade Mountain photos showing effects of overuse since the 1960s.