Is it time to charge a fee to use the High Peaks?

CHRIS KNIGHT

Senior Staff Writer

Some say yes, given trail congestion issues and lack of state funding.

Trailhead parking areas packed with cars. Throngs of hikers streaming into the woods. Big crowds atop rocky mountain summits.

That was the scene on weekends this past summer and fall in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, an 800,000-acre expanse that’s home to four dozen peaks over 4,000 feet and is one of the most heavily used national forests in the country.

“The use on this forest this year was nuts,” said Marianne Leberman, the forest’s recreation and wilderness program leader. “The cars were parked down I-93. It’s that crazy that they’re parking on an expressway.”

The scene was similar this year in the 200,000-acre Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness, where trailhead congestion and summit overcrowding issues reached boiling point, particularly on holiday weekends.

“Cars were parked illegally up and down Adirondack Loj Road,” said Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Julia Goren. “Waste of all kinds piled up on the trails. Labor Day weekend brought more people to the Adirondack High Peaks than ever before. The situation was dangerous for drivers, hikers and wildlife.”

While the stories sound the same, there’s one key difference between those who visited New York and New Hampshire’s highest peaks this year. Hikers and visitors who park at many of the White Mountain National Forest’s most popular trailheads and day-use areas have to buy a U.S. Forest Service recreation pass.

The fee is nominal — $3 a day, $5 for a week or $20 for an annual pass — but this year the system generated more than $600,000 to pay for public safety, education programs, informational exhibits and maintenance of facilities.

At a time when visitation to the High Peaks is booming and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is strapped for funding to manage it, is it time for the state to consider implementing a similar recreation fee system?

That’s a question the Enterprise posed this week to a group of Adirondack Park stakeholders, including hikers, environmentalists, local government officials and a former DEC commissioner.

Some like the idea as long as the money goes back into the High Peaks. Others rejected it as too difficult to manage and enforce. Some worried that the recreation pass could be the first step toward a permit system to restrict access

For the record, this isn’t something the state is exploring right now.

“DEC is not considering any additional fees for recreating on New York State’s Forest Preserve,” DEC spokesman David Winchell wrote in an email.

White Mountain model

White Mountain National Forest has been charging fees for recreational access since 1996, initially as part of a pilot program the U.S. Forest Service implemented across the country.

The White Mountain recreation pass system was officially adopted in 2004 when Congress approved the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. It allowed national forests to charge user fees and retain the revenue for local use. Previously, all the money would have gone to the U.S. Treasury Department.

“When Congress passed the law, there were stipulations that you could only charge fees in places that have amenities,” Leberman said. “They specified the amenities that had to be provided: toilet facilities, picnic tables, interpretation, safety and security and trash collection. Most of our day-use facilities or some of our more major trailheads is where we have that fee.”

Recreation passes are now required at 32 of those 170 “developed” sites in White Mountain National Forest. They can be bought online, at national forest visitor centers and offices, and from various vendors who get a small percentage of the proceeds. Some trailheads also have self-service kiosks for single or multi-day tickets.

Enforcement takes place, but not on a daily basis, Leberman explained. Forest service employees who maintain trailhead and day-use area facilities collect the on-site payments and check vehicles for recreation passes. There are also periodic compliance days when vehicles without passes are ticketed, Leberman said.

White Mountain National Forest recreation fees:

$20 one year

$25 one year, household

$5 one to seven days

Should hikers, snowshoers and skiers, like Doug Haney of Saranac Lake, seen here just below the summit of Mount Marcy in April 2015, pay a recreation fee to access the High Peaks? If the funds are used to help manage the High Peaks, some say yes. Others are opposed to a fee, saying state lands should be free of charge to access. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

$3 one day

Revenue

In 2015, White Mountain National Forest collected $556,912 in recreation fee revenue, according to a year-end U.S. Forest Service report.

“Current and future generations will benefit as 80-95 percent of the funds are reinvested in the facilities and services that visitors enjoy, use and value,” the report reads.

Leberman said she expects the revenue total will exceed $600,000 this year. She said about two-thirds of it pays for operations and maintenance at the trailheads and day-use areas where fees are collected. The rest is used on infrastructure upgrades, with a smaller percentage going to education programs and wayside exhibits.

One of the things the legislation doesn’t allow, although Leberman said she wishes it did, is using fee revenue to pay for trail maintenance, “which is huge and costs a lot of money.”

Overall, Leberman said people are “generally positive” and have come to accept the now-12-year-old recreation fee system.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s controversial,” she said. “You’ll have those outliers saying, ‘I don’t want to see any fees.’ But I think it’s just part of what people do now when they’re going to come to the White Mountains.”

How about here?

Some people, including former DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, say a recreation pass system is worth looking into here given the overuse issues in the High Peaks and his former agency’s budget constraints.

“We’ve come to the tipping point where it’s necessary to make some changes in how we administer the Park,” Martens said. “One of the big considerations is how to raise revenue to do that.”

Martens suggested a fee system “would be one way to get some resources to the department.” He said it could be considered as part of an update to the High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan, adopted in 1999.

“Clearly the need for more money and a greater investment in the High Peaks is crying out,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks. “There’s been an under-investment in the High Peaks. We need not just more assistant rangers and backcountry stewards for trail work and public education, but we need to double the full-time ranger force, given the rise in search and rescues and public use.”

Bauer said the recreation pass system in the White Mountains is just one of several models DEC could consider implementing in the High Peaks. He named other registration and fee systems such as in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and Baxter State Park in Maine.

Legal issue

The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) owns and operates the busiest trailhead into the High Peaks, at Adirondack Loj outside Lake Placid. It charges hikers a parking fee of $10 a day or $5 for ADK members. It’s not clear how much that adds up to, but the money supports the nonprofit group’s trail maintenance efforts, summit steward and education programs, and staffing of its High Peaks Information Center, according to ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth.

“If DEC was providing those services, we wouldn’t be,” he said. “DEC only has about $300,000 to manage the whole High Peaks, and that includes ranger salaries and assistant ranger salaries. There’s not much there, so a (fee) system like (the one in the White Mountain National Forest) might really help a lot.”

In recent months, Woodworth and other environmentalists have asked the state to reconvene a citizens advisory committee that helped guide the drafting of the original High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan. If a recreation fee becomes part of that discussion, Woodworth said one big legal issue would have to be resolved.

“New York state law says that the Forest Preserve is for the free use of the people,”he said. “We could change the statute, but that’s not always easy.”

Another challenge, Woodworth said, is the sheer number of access points to the High Peaks.

“I think the bigger problem is not the cooperation of the private landowners, like ADK and the AuSable Club,” he said. “I think the bigger issue is how many different smaller trailheads there are, the difficulty of processing the permits and then checking on the entry points because we just don’t have enough personnel.”

Limiting use?

Jack Drury of Saranac Lake said setting up a hiking permit system could be easy. Drury is an outdoor educator and Adirondack guide who’s currently developing a community-based trails and lodging system in the Park. He suggested the state adapt its hunting and fishing license system to issue hiking licenses. Hikers could buy licenses from a vendors and display them on their backpacks when they go into the woods, he said.

“I think we need to provide stable revenue sources, and that’s why I’m an advocate of some sort of licensing, permitting system,” Drury said.

Some people think a permit system could help limit access to the congested High Peaks. Hikers who don’t want to pay the fee may instead go somewhere less busy, or it could open the door to a registration system that would restrict hiker numbers.

Leberman said that’s not the intent of the White Mountain recreation pass.

“One of the things in our forest plan and our approach to recreation management is we want to concentrate uses,” she said. “We don’t want to make a management decision that would push a lot of that use to a low-use area because now you’ve created high use over there and you’ve lost that opportunity for solitude or getting away.”

“I don’t think we want to discourage people from using the Forest Preserve,” Bauer said. “What we want to do is have an infrastructure that ensures we protect the natural resources and protects the High Peaks experience for the people who want that experience.”

Hiking community

Would High Peaks hikers be willing to pay for a recreation pass? The Enterprise posed that question this week to the Aspiring Adirondack 46ers Facebook group. As of Wednesday night, the topic had drawn more than 900 comments. Many people said they’d be willing to pay a nominal fee as long as the money is put back into the High Peaks.

“I would have no problems paying this fee,” wrote Heidi Hoffer Jones. “I have gone to other areas and this was required. It’s a small price to pay for the help to upkeep the trails etc. People pay to fish and hunt without batting an eye.”

Some people who support charging a fee said they were worried the state would re-appropriate the money to cover budget shortfalls elsewhere or slowly raise the fee so it’s no longer affordable.

Others were against the idea of paying for access on principle.

“I already pay a fee. It’s called taxes,” wrote Augie Rickard. “We citizens of New York State own that land. I don’t want to pay any extra cost to use a resource that already belongs to me.”

“Charging money to deter people from enjoying the Adirondacks is antithetical to the concept of public lands,” posted Anthony Strngia. “No one should have to pay admission to see the Adirondacks.”

Questions were also raised about the amount of time rangers and DEC personnel would have to spend enforcing a recreation pass system. Others argued that local or state residents should be exempt from a fee.

Governor’s call?

If there’s going to be re-evaluation of how the High Peaks are managed, whether that includes looking at a fee system or not, Bauer thinks it will have to come from the top down.

“If the governor tells the DEC to make this a priority, it could happen,” he said.“Look how fast the DEC classified the Essex Chain lands and then developed a unit management plan. That was lightning speed. It all happened in less than two years.”

“If DEC were to make its priority for the Adirondacks a comprehensive re-evaluation and development of a new unit management plan for the High Peaks and the associated other wilderness areas around the High Peaks, they could do it.”

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