KEENE — Hikers flocked to the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas this past weekend to capitalize on the warm weather, and at least 70 of them were met with parking tickets.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and local law enforcement agencies have stepped up patrols along a 4-mile stretch of Route 73, where roadside parking is now prohibited. This past weekend, an estimated 70 parking tickets were issued by DEC staff alone between the Rooster Comb Mountain trailhead in the hamlet of Keene Valley and the Chapel Pond trailheads to the southeast, DEC spokesperson Erica Ringewald said.
It’s unclear how many tickets, if any, were also issued in that area by New York State Police. A representative of the agency did not immediately respond for comment. Essex County Sheriff David Reynolds said his department hasn’t yet issued any parking tickets in the area.
The DEC announced the new parking restrictions more than two weeks ago.
The restrictions build upon ones that had been put in place between Rooster Comb and Roaring Brook Falls last September, although signage wasn’t put up until recently.
More than 100 tickets have been issued along Route 73 since, according to Ringewald. That includes the 70 tickets doled out this past weekend, indicating there wasn’t much enforcement of the parking ban until now.
Each ticket carries a $250 fine along with court fees.
Faced with an increasing number of visitors to the High Peaks Wilderness, the DEC is encouraging hikers to visit other areas.
According to David Winchell, a DEC spokesman in Ray Brook, the department is encouraging hikers who do come to the High Peaks to visit during weekdays rather than weekends, when the demand is generally lower and parking is available in lots near trailheads.
“DEC is undertaking a multi-year, comprehensive effort to promote sustainable tourism and address public safety in the Adirondacks,” Winchell said. “We will continue to explore all options to manage use with full engagement of all stakeholders including communities and the recreating public.”
Forest rangers on the front lines
State forest rangers are on the front lines of parking enforcement near trailheads.
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According to forest ranger Scott van Laer of Ray Brook, a representative of the rangers’ union, enforcing parking restrictions near trailheads has had a “disastrous” impact on forest rangers’ day-to-day operations. This past Saturday alone, rangers issued more than 48 parking tickets in the High Peaks Wilderness area, according to him.
He said there already aren’t enough forest rangers to effectively patrol the backcountry. Parking enforcement at the roadside affects rangers’ ability to accomplish other parts of their jobs, like educating hikers to prevent search-and-rescues, he said.
“It’s a constant circle, constant drive around, to get people to consider other destinations,” he said.
By the time rangers on duty clear one area and circle around to another, another five to 10 cars are parked illegally, he said.
“We don’t have the staff to keep up with this use,” van Laer said. “I get it; it’s part of our job, implementing unit management plan and what the department wants in place.
“I’m not opposed to doing (parking enforcement). But it comes at a cost.
“You’ve got to give us the staff to do the entire job.”
With the new parking restrictions in place, some members of the Essex County Board of Supervisors have questioned how hikers will get to the trails when parking lots near trailheads are filled.
Winchell said the DEC is working on that.
“DEC is exploring a transit system to serve hikers and communities within the region,” he said. “DEC is working with municipalities, residents, and other stakeholders to address this need and find a suitable outcome. Funding will be determined as part of this process.”
Essex County Department of Public Works Deputy Superintendent Jim Dougan told supervisors last month that he’d been approached by the DEC about the possibility of using county transport to shuttle hikers from one place to another, but no formal agreement has been reached.