NORTH ELBA, N.Y. — NORTH ELBA, N.Y. - They have been battered by storms, ravaged by fires and, a little more than a century ago, stripped bare of much of their timber.
Yet today the 46 highest Adirondack mountains are a towering tribute to the resilience of nature and to man's efforts to preserve forever a patch of wilderness surrounded by civilization.
Forests once again blanket their slopes. Mile-high views remain largely unspoiled by development.
But the largest tract of publicly owned wilderness in the Adirondack Park, which encompasses 6 million acres of public and private land in upstate New York, now confronts a more insidious threat: recreational use.
Despite the effects of acid rain on the lakes, forests and soils, and the changes the mountains will face if the climate warms, the peaks, for now, seem most threatened by the people who love them.
What started out with a few adventurous guides hacking to the summits along old logging roads has ballooned into one of the park's most popular attractions.
Through the 1990s, about 100,000 people a year visited the 192,685 acres known as the High Peaks Wilderness Area, with much of the use concentrated in its eastern half, home of Mount Marcy, the state's highest mountain at 5,344 feet.
Now, despite more than a century of protection and decades of stewardship, the fragile mountaintops and forests are still stressed by hikers and campers, and thus fail to adhere to the principle set in stone in 1972, when they were designated wilderness: an area "where Earth and its community are untrammeled by man."
"The level of use has exceeded what anyone would consider a definition of wilderness," said Stuart Buchanan, director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's regional office in Ray Brook, which oversees much of the park's 3 million acres of state-owned forest preserve, including the High Peaks.
"There's nowhere else in the park where we have the concentration of recreational use that we do in the High Peaks, with the exception of boaters on Lake George."
In 1999, with 40 percent of its 303 miles of trails in poor shape, the state adopted a plan to bring use down to a level that the High Peaks wilderness could tolerate.
After 30 years of debate, the so-called unit management plan marked the first time that solutions to the High Peak's use problem - many discussed since the recreation boom of the 1970s - were put down on paper.
Three years later, what in print was politically viable has proved difficult to translate into reality in such remote wilderness.
Department of Environmental Conservation officials say their efforts to maintain trails and bring the 301-square-mile High Peaks area into compliance with wilderness regulations are hobbled by a lack of manpower and money; conflicting interpretations of wilderness rules; and strict guidelines that place limits on what managers can do to restore nature, such as bans on power tools and large volunteer groups.
As a result, DEC personnel have completed fewer than half of the 53 projects that the 1999 plan had committed the state to finishing by the end of this summer.
And the longer it takes to address the causes and effects of too much use, managers and advocates argue, the more the wilderness will be destroyed.
Already, foot traffic and erosion have worn away soil on some of the most popular trails, making them deeper and wider. And hikers trampling the summits have reduced the acreage of some of the last remaining alpine habitat in the state.
To be sure, there are some successes: A two-year ban on campfires has reduced wood gathering and litter. A Nature Conservancy program that places stewards on the mountain summits has helped save rare alpine plants. And there are early indications that at some popular trail heads, use is declining.
But it's difficult for managers to keep pace.
"A lot of damage has already been done. Now we are trying to keep the resource stabilized," said Phil Johnstone, who has headed the Department of Environmental Conservation's trail maintenance work in the High Peaks since 1979. "But say you lay out a new trail. It doesn't take many feet to have an impact."
There are three full-time caretakers in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. They are helped by the nonprofit Adirondack Trail Improvement Society and the 40,000-member Adirondack Mountain Club. Despite requests for more money, funding for High Peaks trail maintenance and ranger salaries has remained constant over the last three years, at around $300,000.
A recent announcement of $300,000 in additional state funding gave the DEC the money it needed to catch up on some of its backlogged work. But money isn't the only challenge. Reversing the damage in the eastern High Peaks is also hindered by the very regulations that protect the wilderness, some state officials and advocacy groups claim.
While there is plenty of space in the Adirondacks where people build homes and operate businesses, and where visitors can boat, ski and snowmobile, wilderness places must be maintained in a way that doesn't tarnish the experience. Routine maintenance work, which once didn't require a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency, now does, and the process can delay trail work for months or sometimes years, Johnstone said.
"We've been made more aware of the fact that we have to follow the same process the public does," he said. "It's a real Catch-22." Power tools are allowed only a few months each year or in emergencies, and the group-size limits that apply to hikers also apply to groups that volunteer for trail maintenance.
"Yeah, it would be easier to do things with mechanized equipment," Buchanan said. "But it's something we have to balance, protecting people's wilderness experience and our need to do maintenance." To save the wilderness, some would argue, there are two options: limit numbers or manage nature to withstand the crowds.
According to critics, the state isn't doing either effectively. Nothing in the 1999 plan directly limits the number of people entering the High Peaks. Restrictions on group size, parking and campsites don't necessarily reduce the visitors. And while recent data suggest that the number has declined slightly, it's unclear whether that will ease the pressure. "It's probably time for the state to do more," said Kathy Regan, a conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of the Adirondacks, whose steward program puts people on the summits to steer hikers clear of alpine plants.
"They are not limiting numbers. As long as they are going to do that, we have to manage people in the interior." Tony Goodwin, the author of the Adirondack Mountain Club's guidebook on the High Peaks and president of the 300-member Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, is intimately familiar with that interior. He has a photograph of his grandmother on the summit of Mount Marcy in 1909, mud up to her knees.
Today, hikers and erosion have worn Marcy's tip down to an island of bare rock. According to Goodwin, the time to get serious about fixing trails is long overdue. "To continue working on them like we have for the last 20 years, it may be another century until we fix things up," Goodwin said. "Restrictions aren't going to solve the problem of deteriorating trails."
A minority voice
Many trails in the High Peaks, which were built by early guides looking for the fastest path up the mountains, need to be rerouted with erosion and heavy use in mind, according to Goodwin. Limiting the number of hikers alone won't put an end to the abuse of the High Peaks, he said. "The numbers that you would have to ratchet it down to, to keep these trails in good shape, is practically zero in the Adirondacks," Goodwin said.
His is a minority voice. Others see the solution in issuing permits to campers. But while camping permits were part of every draft of the current plan, the measure was resisted by the DEC and the Adirondack Mountain Club when the plan was finalized in 1999.
"We did not want to go to a camping permit system until less restrictive measures were tried first," said Neil Woodworth, counsel for the Adirondack Mountain Club. The good news is that the numbers coming to the eastern High Peaks appear to be decreasing. Based on the number of people registering at trail heads, use on some popular routes is down by as much as 25 percent.
The DEC attributes it to the restrictions put in place three years ago limiting the size of hiking groups, camping parties and parking along the perimeter. Others say it has more to do with the weather and the economy.
One thing everyone does agree on: The 1999 plan, despite complications, made people more aware of the natural resource and the need to protect it.
The question is whether that is enough to save the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. "We always take the least restrictive approach to management," Buchanan said. "Some people argue that's not going to get us where we need to be. We'll find that out soon enough."