The Ausable Club’s attempt to renege on its promise to allow hikers access to the High Peaks through its property in Keene Valley is the latest example of Adirondack environmentalists having second thoughts about their success.
That success has involved, most dramatically, the huge expansion of Adirondack wild forest through the state’s acquisition of private land over the last couple of decades. But it also includes an enormous increase in the popularity of hiking — an increase that environmentalists predicted and promoted but now, sometimes, act as if they would rather reverse.
Years ago, when the Adirondack economy was debated, the side that favored stricter controls on development argued that wilderness tourism was the key to future prosperity. Wilderness was the Adirondack’s unique selling point, they said — and what a glorious wilderness! Promote the beautiful peaks and lakes and waterfalls, and more and more people would come north to enjoy them.
The pro-development side argued that hiking and paddling and cross-country skiing weren’t enough — the Adirondacks needed good-paying skilled jobs, the kind that manufacturing and construction companies could provide. That economy has not materialized, although there is a chance the popularity of the Adirondack environment — its clean air and water and its second-to-none opportunities for outdoor recreation — will eventually bring it about.
Some percentage of the people drawn to the region for recreating will end up moving there, especially as broadband service is improved. We have already had a year-long demonstration of the plausibility of working from home, so now, living in Saranac Lake while working for a white-collar firm in Manhattan, for example, is conceivable.
All of this is not being welcomed by all of the folks who, for years, insisted that it could and should happen. After years of saying the strict Adirondack Park zoning laws would benefit Adirondack communities by attracting tourists to its unspoiled expanses, some Adirondack environmentalists are now bemoaning the effectiveness of their own strategy.
In the late 1970s, the Ausable Club sold more than 9,000 acres of wild land, including 11 High Peaks, to the state for $744,800, more than $3 million in today’s money. As part of the sale, the club included easements over its property for public access to the land.
The lawyer for the club has described those easements as a “gift” to the state, which is misleading. They were a necessary part of the sale. The language of the easements describes them as “an integral, indispensable and inseparable part and as an absolute condition of the transaction.”
The easements allow restrictions on foot traffic over the trails, if both sides — the Ausable Club and the state —agree they are necessary to avoid “undue adverse environmental damage.” We have not seen any evidence presented of such damage, only assertions that hiking traffic has greatly increased.
More hikers create more wear and tear on the trails but do not necessarily create “undue adverse environmental damage.” The extent of the damage depends, in large part, on the behavior of the hikers, and that can be influenced. Before the state goes along with limiting public access to these beautiful public lands, more effort should be made to curb destructive behavior, through education and enforcement.
You can’t run a prosperous tourist economy without investment, and since it’s the wilderness that is bringing tourists to the Adirondacks, that is where the investment should be made. The state has spent many millions of dollars acquiring these lands. Instead of putting arbitrary limits on the number of people who can enjoy the wilderness, the state should invest in conserving it.
Local editorials are written by the Post-Star editorial board, which includes Ben Rogers, president and director of local sales and marketing; Brian Corcoran, regional finance director and former publisher; Will Doolittle, projects editor; and Bob Condon, local news editor.