The devastation caused by Hurricane Irene August 28th was nothing short of catastrophic for the inhabitants of the Adirondack communities in its path. It was also catastrophic for the New York State Wilderness Areas in its path. Backcountry dams were breached, trail bridges washed away, and untold miles of trails were destroyed. It will take weeks if not months to inventory the damage and probably years to repair it. Given the condition of New York State government, how much help can we realistically expect? Should repairs to our backcountry be the priority given all the frontcountry infrastructure repair needs?
I think opportunity awaits.
Perhaps we can use this disaster to provide the impetus to explore two questions: Can we find alternative forms of funding that would provide more stability and security to the financing of Forest Preserve management, particularly the backcountry? How might we create a different, perhaps more wilderness like, High Peaks Wilderness Area?
I hope there is consensus that the state doesn’t have the financial resources to properly manage the Forest Preserve, especially in this economy and given the natural disasters of this spring and summer. Don’t get me wrong, I think the DEC does a magnificent job considering their resources, but there just aren’t enough people or dollars to get the job done even in good financial times. How the heck are they going to get the job done in times like these?
I think it is the perfect time to explore alternative funding. Two means immediately come to mind: user fees; and, sales/excise taxes.
User fees exist for many forms of recreation, but for some reason backcountry users have ducked their responsibility for decades. Sure, there are a number of wonderful organizations like the Adirondack Mountain Club whose members (of which I am one) support backcountry management any number of ways, but that still doesn’t do the job. For example, the Adirondack Mountain Club has approximately 35,000 members but we have hundreds of thousands of people using our backcountry each year. Why aren’t all users contributing directly to the cost of managing our backcountry? Hunters and fisherman have been paying their own way for about a century. I think a dedicated user fee for those using the backcountry for all activities other than fishing, hunting, and trapping should be seriously considered.
The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, funded through an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, is an excellent example of what could be done on the state level for certain camping equipment. Backpacking tents (those 10 pounds or under), backpacking stoves (single-burner stoves under 2.5 pounds), and backpacks over 1200 cubic inches in size might be the items the state would tax. By the way, I hope you like the criteria I based the tax on; I spent less than two minutes coming up with it. My point is that we could come up with some acceptable criteria by which we would tax items.
Imagine the number of trail crews and the size of the backcountry rehabilitation program we could support if we had the financial resources.
A Different Type of Wilderness
I’ve been using the Adirondack backcountry since I first climbed Ampersand Mountain in 1962. I’ve traveled in most of the Adirondack Park’s Wilderness and Primitive Areas and many of our Wild Forests. There is a spectrum of wildness which sometimes, ironically, has the Wild Forests wilder than our Wilderness areas. Principle #1 of the 13 widely recognized Principles of Wilderness Management (Hendee et al) states, “Manage Wilderness as the Most Pristine Extreme on the Environmental Modification Spectrum.” The High Peaks Wilderness Area has never been managed in that manner. There are numerous reasons why with some being more valid than others.
Does the impact of Hurricane Irene provide an opportunity to re-examine how many dams and bridges we need in the High Peaks Wilderness Area? Might our resources be better spent building durable fording sites rather than bridges? Might we be better off using our limited resources to relocate poorly located trails? I think perhaps that is the case.
Would it be inconvenient for both users and our backcountry personnel? Certainly, but wilderness doesn’t exist for convenience.
What do you think?