Category Archives: Tourism

Learnings from the Tetons and Yellowstone

We spent nine nights in the Tetons and Yellowstone in September 2016.  They are both small relative to the Adirondacks yet handle 2x the visitors.  They are managed by the Park Service. Different companies operate hotels, restaurants stores, gas stations, and such in the Park under concession agreements.  Some other observations follow and thoughts about what the Adirondacks might usefully copy are the last section.

The Tetons

The Tetons National Park is small, only 330,000 acres, but speculator.  The Jackson, WY airport is actually inside the Park so it is incredibly easy to visit.  It is about vistas, hiking, fishing, rafting and wildlife spotting.  Dogs are only allowed in limited areas.  The season is not over yet but we were told it might approach 5 million visitors for 2016.  We visited right after Labor Day. There were notable numbers of Asian tourist groups.

Camping is allowed only by reservation at designated sites.  You have to register your plans at a back country office.  If you plan on staying at campsites A, B and C you have to show up at each site on the designated day.  You are not allowed to stop early and camp somewhere because you are tired or it’s raining, snowing and so on.  Back country rangers check in on campsites daily.

Wildlife is abundant. Only hunting elk is legal and only under limited circumstances.   Roads have many viewing pullouts – signs tell you that you are approaching one.

Bears, especially brown bears, are a danger.  Instead of insisting people carry bear canisters, the Park Service installs bear-proof metal food storage bins at every picnic ground and even back country camping locations.  They are big enough for two people to fit inside and there is a latch release on the inside.  Bear spray is widely available, heavily advertised and can even be rented.  Training information about how to use it is all over the place (e.g. do not spray it into the wind).  The discourage people from thinking guns will protect them from a bear.  They encourage you to make noise when hiking, talk loudly, carry a bell, and go in groups of three or more.  The idea is to avoid surprising a bear.

Yellowstone is Just to the North

Yellowstone is 2000 feet higher and a very different ecological environment full of geysers and other hot water features.  It is 2.2 million acres, and the surrounding ecosystem adds another 22 million acres.  Ownership outside the Park is mixed private, other federal and there are small towns.  It was estimated that 5 millions would visit this year.

There is no hunting in the Park, but the the animal herds move outside the Park where hunting is big business.  The wildlife of the Park are treasured.  Herds of bison, elk and pronghorn antelope.  Grizzly and black bears.  Moose.

The same rules about camping and bears apply here are they do in the Tetons.

The big thing here is fire.  Days before we arrived, the road between the Tetons and Yellowstone was closed due to a forest fire.  It opened the morning we wanted pass, then closed abruptly again in the afternoon. Strong winds came up and the fire exploded.  Nearby by tourist facilities were evacuated and closed.  They do try to protect buildings and infrastructure, but otherwise they let fires burn using gates to close off roads when necessary (there is a whole system of gates).  You see recovering burned areas all over the Park with new pine forests of various ages growing up. Fires there serve the same purpose as beaver here, creating open lands for new plant growth in the open sun.  You don’t want to be near a forest fire, or downwind from one, but there is no special concern for the forest lost because you see it recovering all over the region.  Smoke clouds were as big as our summertime thunderheads.  The next day, it snowed 4-6 inches which helped dampen the fire so the road was re-opened as few days later.

Common Features to Both Parks

No one lives in the Park except Park staff and seasonal workers at various hotels, restaurants and campgrounds.  These people all live in dormitory style housing.  There are public bathrooms all over the area.  95% of people never get more than 500 feet from a road.  Some areas are heavily developed to handle crowds – most notably Old Faithful – but most of it is left untouched.

Areas are routinely closed for maintenance, restoration and recovery.  July and August are the busiest months of their short season.  The visitors there reflected international visitors but not notably diverse American visitors.

Traffic can back up due to two things.  Parking lots get full so waiting cars line up, causing roads to choke up.  Also wildlife sightings cause visitors to stop and this turns into a crowd rapidly. Staff is dispatched to place temporary ‘wildlife’ signs so people are aware of the cause of the delay and manage the road side areas.

What Might be Helpful to the Adirondacks?

There dominance of car touring to designated places with something to see and appropriate facilities (bathrooms, photo op pull outs, etc) suggested to me the Adirondacks could do a lot more with simple roadside vistas and pull outs.  Simple things like a sign saying “pull out ahead gave drivers time to pull safely off the road to enjoy the location.  Encouraging activity other than hiking protects the back country.

Since no one lives in the Parks, staff housing has to be provided.  It would see like summer staff housing in the Adirondacks would be a way to add more people and thereby improve the visitor experience.

Park Staff (Rangers and Naturalists) were visible and approachable in many locations.  There were trained well and able to answer most questions.  Visitor centers have staffed desks with people who knew the most recent road conditions, closures, etc.  In Yellowstone there was a Park newspaper.  The point is we found information available all over the place from staff in many locations.  Here in the Adirondacks, information is harder to find unless you know where to look.

The story of the Parks and their surrounding area is quite similar to the Adirondacks.  The core Park areas were easy for almost everyone to support from the beginning.  It was only when the Park boundaries were expanded into neighboring ranch land next to the Tetons that locals began to object.  The land was purchased in a hidden manner (like the TNC purchase of Finch) and later it became part of the Park by Presidential Executive Order.  In the case of Yellowstone, the Park has not grown in acres, but the Yellowstone ecosystem designation was expanded to some 22.2 million acres surrounding the 2.2 million acre Park and this was a root of classic conservation conflicts there.  The 22.2 million acres includes small towns and tracts of private ranch land plus other Federal land.  The Adirondack Forest Preserve included lots of scattered tracts while the two western Parks are in contiguous blocks of land.  Someday, people will come to see that the Adirondack ecosystem will be better served if our Forest Preserve was consolidated into larger blocks and the smaller disassociated scattered parcels were sold to fund contiguous land.

The Jackson airport had a new terminal with 9 gates and is served by a couple of airlines.  It makes visiting very easy.  We have the Saranac Lake Airport in the Park but it is poorly served by Cape Air to the point that mostly it exists for private aircraft of the uber rich.  However we also have Plattsburgh airport which is about to open its expanded terminal with 9 gates plus be able to handle international arrivals and departures.  There is potential to use it as a major entry point for air travel to our Park.


Project Update – Are We Getting the Desired Future Or?

You know this pattern:  Lots of people spend tons of time and money developing a plan.  It finishes with a fanfare, then as times passed it is spoken about less frequently.  Eventually people forget about the plan.  Then work begins on a new plan, because, well, we don’t have one. So, with this post we are trying to add something different to the ADK Futures Project, a review of how we are doing vs the 2011-12 vision – remember the vision?

In 2011-12, the ADK Futures Project ran a series of scenario planning workshops.  The desired future was called the Sustainable Life, mixed with tourism and supported by the Forest Preserve.  This also turned out to be most attainable among the scenarios, largely because much of it was already underway.  The broad alignment supporting the vision was what surprised people.  Now it is February 2016.  What has happened since July 2012?  How does it compare to the desired vision?

We have been collecting data, news items, press releases, reports and such since July 2013 and now have roughly 1000 items. We associate each item to its related event(s).  Over time one begins to see trends suggesting what is getting done, and what is not. Some events have lots of news, on other events nothing has happened, and some are clearly never going to happen.

The short conclusion is, wow, we sure are making a lot of progress on a broad range of fronts. Historic expansions of the Forest Preserve have been made.  Realignment of the health care system has been done.  Building out broadband and cell service is ongoing, making progress each day.  The renewal of Champlain Valley farming is gaining momentum.  The State and private sector have invested a lot of new money in recreation and tourism facilities.  And on and on.  It is very impressive, especially given the fact that no one is organizing, coordinating, or leading all this work.   It is happening, it seems, with the willing collaboration and distributed effort of many people to get where they collectively want to go.  Maybe this is democracy in action in the most positive sense of the word.   It is actually quite incredible.

There is too much information for a post.  We have written an update that organizes recent developments by theme.  For example, Agriculture, Recreation, Energy, Transportation, Arts and Heritage, Healthcare, and more, are each separate topics, where news related to the events used in the 2011-12 workshops has been aggregated and written as a short narrative.

The update is based on data collected, organized and posted here.  You can check on the data, follow the links and find out more about the progress we have made. We try to keep ‘evidence’ to things that actually happen; not ongoing debates but how the debates conclude.  We try to keep it complete.  A grant is made.  A project is started, finished or abandoned.  The APA makes a decision.  Voters pass something.  You get the idea.  Even with this approach, we already have about 1000 items of evidence.   Let us know via email of missing data, including a link to the evidence we should cite.  Thanks!

Click here for the PDF file of the update document.



August 16 Symposium “Toward a More Diverse Adirondack Park’

The Park’s first diversity symposium is on Saturday August 16 at the SUNY ESF Newcomb Campus from 8am-5pm.

The web site with registration information, the agenda and details can be found here.  For additional information please call John Sheehan at the Adk Council, 518-432-1770

Participating organizations include:  Adirondack Almanack, Adirondack Council, Adirondack Foundation, Adirondack Futures, John Brown Lives, SUNY ESF, the Common Ground Alliance  and The Wild Center.

Here is a link to a post abut the event on the Adk Life blog.

For background, see this current report analyzing diversity in enviro groups and this article about the same issue.  It is a bigger issue than the Adirondacks, for sure, but go look at the Boards and staff of the enviro groups related to our Park for some insight about us.  It isn’t conscious, I don’t believe, but the situation speaks for itself.

The Park’s demographics are strikingly at variance with the rest of NY State, and particularly the cities, in most every dimension from age to race, to language, to sexual orientation and on down the list.  This widening gap is one possible route to failure in the Park’s future. Today we get the full attention of Albany, but there is nothing the suggest it will stay this way.  A big election, with high city voter turnout, could change a lot of things pretty quickly.

A few decades back, the issue was ‘home rule’ being trumped by excessive outside attention. But now the risk suggested by demographic trends is the actually opposite.  It is the possibility that the Park will become a largely neglected, abandoned, and increasingly irrelevant backwater of the State.  We need to find ways to make the people who visit and live here a better reflection of the state’s population.

The Park and the Forest Preserve exist at the pleasure of NY State voters.   The lofty notion that it is ‘forever’ is only actually true until an amendment on the ballot changes it.  It is not nearly the bedrock certainty that the tone of the Forever Wild language implies.

Please come join us at this symposium to share,  to think, and to learn about this challenge to our region.  Think of this as a starting point.  See you on August 16th?

Thanks to Pete Nelson for actually getting attention focused on this issue.

What is happening to boost tourism?

There are lots of projects aimed at visitors

A group that was hatched at Common Ground to write a Park wide recreation plan has completed its work and it will be presented at the July 2013 CGA event in Newcomb.  In cooperation with AATV, they received a NCREDC grant ($108,000) to build a new web based  recreation portal for Park visitors to showcase everything a visitor might want to know about the park, indoors, outdoors, all seasons, all over the region.  The goal is to spread visitors around more, use specifically promoted events as season extenders.

A spinoff effort from the same group is working with local people in the five towns impacted by the Finch land acquisitions.  They are charged with coming up with a plan that turns the new Forest Preserve additions into a much needed economic boost for the towns based on recreation.  At the closing of the recent phase of sales to the State, The Nature Conservancy contributed $500,000 to help the five towns with this effort.

Governor Cuomo has set up a Whitewater Challenge, for July 21 in Indian Lake as a promotional effort to bring attention to recreation on the new Forest Preserve land acquisitions.

The are quite a few projects underway aimed at improving tourism facilities using REDC grant funding:

The ADK Mountain Club has $221,000 to upgrade hiker facilities at their Heart Lake facility.  Port Henry on Lake Champlain has $250,000 to rebuild the Bulwagga Bay recreation facilities. Wilmington got $251,000 to upgrade 3 waterfront parks.  Inlet has $248,000 to redesign and rebuild Arrowhead Park.  Northville will see $75,000 in improvements for two waterfront parks.  Tupper Lake and the other communities hosting the 90 mile ADK Canoe Classic will see $445,000 in projects.  Lake George will see new public docks ($170,000) and park improvements.  Lake Placid will build multi-use recreational fields (think Lacrosse) on top of closed landfills.

Also, a $2 million capital loan fund was set up for tourism projects.

Separately, DEC has plans to replace the docks at Second Pond, a heavily used place to put in boats near Lower Saranac Lake.

A big private initiative is construction of a new 100 room hotel in Lake Placid.  The Sagamore in Bolton Landing on Lake George announced it will be open all year and the same owners have purchased The Lake Placid Lodge.  Maybe some hi-end tourism will move people around the Park?

DEC has opened a new 12 mile inter-hamlet trail between Inlet and Raquette Lake for snowmobiles, hikers, bikes, etc.  At the same time, DEC closed 2 miles of road and 46 miles of back country snowmobile trail, and then the APA reclassified 15,000 acres as wilderness instead of wild forest.  Protect thinks accommodating today’s machines that groom snowmobile trails are illegal, so they sued the State.  It is not clear how the suit will impact other inter-hamlet trail projects.

The Rail-Trail debate has stepped ahead.  The State DOT will open and review the plan for the Utica-Lake Placid rail corridor.  This could take a year or two.

Use of the back country, at least by people intent on becoming 46ers, is doing well.  So well in fact, that the volunteers that run the 46er club say they added 412 people to their 7000 members in 2012 alone.  Saying it is now too much work, they are changing their policies.

Lake George, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are all working on Main Street revitalization plans.

If we were to name all this diverse activity it would be the “Whole Park Tourism Initiative”.  By “whole” we mean geographically but also indoor as well as outdoor recreation, accommodations, places to shop, eat and so on – the “whole visitor experience”. The big change is to promote the broad scope of possible experiences for visitors to the region, putting emphasis on the scale and scope of the entire region.

And, in the “never going to happen” category…

It is clear now that, other than specific fees for, say, a campsite, ski pass, fishing/hunting license, or a bed tax,  there will never be a general ADK Park user fee.

But, one day, there may still be a no-fee system to limit the flow of people in crowded places at peak times – a free system (e.g. Cascade Mtn or some boat launches).  If you want an example of this, check out how free admissions to the 911 memorial in NYC are handled.  Here, you could get the permit off the internet and wear it on a trail, like you do a ski pass, hunting license, etc.   This isn’t needed all over, just is busy spots, just in busy season.

The Village of Lake George and, separately, Essex County have sent notice to the Governor’s office that, if casinos became legal in NY, they would be interested in being a site for one.  Since then the Governor signed a deal with the indian casino that leaves the with the exclusive gaming location in the 8 northern counties.  So we won’t be seeing a casino in the Adirondacks.


We spent the month of February traveling in Central America, mainly Costa Rica.  When we left Keene we joked that we were doing “research on ecotourism” but, in fact, we did learn a lot about the subject.  Here are a few observations.


A Mix of Public and Private Reserves plus a Wide Spread Eco Ethics

In Costa Rica, there are national parks (25% of the total area of the country) and also private reserves (8%).  Overall, the country is about double the size of the Adirondack Park.  So its national parks are about equal to our Forest Preserve which is about half of the total Adirondack Park.  This is pretty good in terms of land set aside for conservation.  Costa Rica is frequently cited for its high level of commitment to environmental sustainability.  They have set a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021.  Something like 95% of its energy is derived from renewable sources, mainly hydro, wind and geothermal (they have a lot of volcanoes).  More than any other country in the world they have branded themselves an ecotourism destination.

Admission Fees for Foreigners

Both Parks and private reserves charge admission with different rates for citizens vs. visitors.  They all have gates with attendants and posted hours of operation and a formal sense of the area as a Park.  The national parks charge $10 per person for foreigners.  Fees at private parks vary from $15-$25.  The all have bathrooms at the entrances.  The private preserves also tend to have small shops selling things like hats, sun screen, insect repellent, bird identification cards.  Some have small simple restaurants offering light food and drinks.

Excellent Guides Everywhere

In every case the guides make it clear that the funds from tourist traffic support more conservation and jobs in the region. An important point is that the private preserves are set up so only a small part (2%) of the land is accessible by visitors with the rest devoted to preservation of natural habitat and protection of wildlife.  This often meant that a hotel had as small a footprint as possible.  Some have highly developed trails.  Most walks are short, maybe 2 hours.  The funds go to research programs, typically on other parts of the property.   The government provides small financial incentives for private land owners to turn their properties into preserves rather than farms, plantations or pastures.

Guides point out basic flora and fauna as well as local exotic stuff, if any.  They carry scopes for birding, take photos with visitors’ cameras, and they carry laser pointers that are great for pointing to birds.  The guides work as teams; each guide has only 2-5 people with them, but if they find something of special interest they use smart phones to text each other in order to share sightings. Most excursions are half-day programs.  There are also early morning (dawn) and early evening (sunset + 2 hours) walks.

Guides are very well trained, certified and licensed.  Schooling appears to be 2-3 years of work at a community college level or higher.  They are expert bird spotters, and explain plants, tree types, canopy fungi, soils…lots of facts about how the ecosystems work.  They are deeply enthusiastic in explaining things to people of all types from many countries.  They are cross-trained so one day they are walking guides while the next day they are raft drivers.  Most are employed by tour operators, although some are independent.

Transportation Problems Similar to the Adirondacks

The primary tourist towns are a few hours apart, and 2-3 hours from the larger airport (there are some smaller airstrips).  The tour companies use small comfortable vans for airport pickups and to take people from town to town.  The drivers who run these transfers make the trips interesting, stopping at good view spots or to see a random animal.  In effect, the transport becomes another excursion. They talk happily with passengers about anything using either English or Spanish.  Many visitors rent cars as well.

Regionally, they leverage the variability of the country….the fact that it is really different in each region is made to be of interest and a reason to travel around.

Other Tourist Activity

It’s not all about birding and species identification.  There are lots of visitor-related recreation and entertainment attractions:  zip lines, rappelling, balloon rides, horses, boat trips, rafting, coffee farm tours, mangrove swamp tours, chocolate plantation tours, artist coop visits, butterfly gardens, orchid farms, beach towns, etc.  The main focus is wildlife and understanding the complex and varied ecosystems of this diverse country.

Hunting is illegal in all of Costa Rica.  Animals with behavior issues (e.g. crocodiles) are captured and released where they are not dangerous to people

Recycling is ubiquitous in the country and they are always looking for markets for recycled materials.  They explained that now they make all decks and walkways in the parks out of recycled plastic rather than wood.  In the tropical climate the wood rots in as little as 5 years whereas the plastic will last essentially forever.  Hotel gift shops offered a range of things made from recycled materials.

It wasn’t just professional guides and tour operators who seemed to get the idea of conservation and ecotourism.  The attitudes about protecting the environment and being proud of the environmental achievements seemed universal.  We heard that the private reserves are better protected than the National Parks, where budget limitations make enforcement personnel scarce.  Mostly this creates problems with timber poachers coming in from bordering Nicaragua, not with local  people, we were told.

There are still conflicts here between the needs of development and the goals of environmental protection.  A recent project to widen and modernize a key highway going to the southeast of the country met with some resistance because long stretches of it ran through a major preserve.

Thoughts on Ecotourism in the Adirondacks

Older ADK ‘attractions’ like Ausable Chasm, High Falls Gorge, Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, could be marketed as ecotourism.  There are already farms tours and farm stays.  Many hotels and restaurants are tied to sustainable operations and local food.  The Wild Center is an obvious center piece. We would benefit from more study the special natural ecosystems that support birds and wildlife – they are a tourist attraction.  Some way of using tourism (fees) to generate a funding stream for environmental research and protection  (e.g., programs against invasives) could be made attractive to tourists here as it is in Costa Rica.  Eco-tourists feel good when they know that they are contributing to protecting the wild environment.  Spending a few dollars as a contribution to the good work going on there feels like a good thing, not a burden.

Adirondack Non-Profit Network

The varied non-profits of the Adirondack Region are critical to successfully moving toward a better future.  So we were pleased to have the opportunity to spend a day last week with the Adirondack Non-Profit Network (ANN), an informal network of leaders from organizations serving the Adirondacks that has been organized by the Adirondack Community Trust (ACT).  Non-profits in the arts, community development, healthcare, environmental research and advocacy, social services, tourism (e.g., museums), education and others were represented.  A major goal of the group is to foster more integrated, Park-wide planning and cooperation, which we endorse wholeheartedly.


The goal of the half-day workshop we organized for the group was to explore the ways in which the non-profit sector can contribute to progress toward the ADK Futures vision.  The group prioritized these top areas:

  • Adapting to climate change
  • Developing support services to better enable mid-career families to move here
  • Getting somewhere on the diversity issue
  • Developing a vision and strategy for public education in the Adirondacks
  • Making the Arts a growing economic sector
  • Dealing with a growing number of poor in the Park
  • Getting water quality efforts better organized, networked and coordinated
  • Getting all the tourism NGOs to strategize together (outdoor oriented but also indoor)
  • Continue the work of Main Street revitalization

The group thought most of this would be difficult, but some areas like getting the tourism NGOs to work together or developing a support system for mid-career families were seen as relatively easy. Large numbers of the non-profits represented could work on climate change, tourism and the Arts. There were fewer who would address water quality improvement, coping with a growing poor segment of our communities or addressing the lack of diversity in the region’s residents and visitors.

Some key ideas from the discussion were:

  • Climate change is still an education issue
  • In education, study the best schools in the Park and create a model of successful small schools
  • Create a Park-Wide Arts organization – conceive of the Park as an arts center; this is a major hole in the Park’s non-profit infrastructure.
  • Non-profits need to help a few key towns to revitalize that don’t have the local organizations and experienced people to pursue this.  For example, adopt Port Henry.

Overall, the big theme was thinking Park-wide, collaborating, networking and making connections all the time.

The Park’s Demographic Challenge

As we read about the way that America’s changing demographics played such a big role in the recent elections, we are reminded of the shifting demographics of New York State and the potential problems it might present to the future of the Park.  The people who live in the Park and the people who visit the Park are largely Caucasian.  But the State of New York and America as a whole is heading toward a day when Caucasians will be less than half of its citizens.  Already there are more non-white babies being born in the State than white.

During the Futures workshops, this issue was one that concerned a lot of people.  With more and more people living and growing up in the big cities, fewer young people are being exposed to nature and even fewer to something like wilderness.  We’ve seen people from the big city come to the mountains and be freaked out by the emptiness and quiet rather than rejuvenated by this natural environment.

The main concern is that the next generation of voters will not be as fully supportive of the Park and its costs to the tax payers.  Also, that the ranks of the environmental movement will be depleted as the boomers pass away.  You can see it with the big land owners in the region who are aging and whose next generation is far less interested in this place than their parents.

Like the Republican Party, we are likely to respond to these changes too little and too late.  Responding means changing the way that we promote and brand the Park to make sure it is multicultural and diverse in its messages and images.  More importantly, it means making an appreciation of nature and the environment an integral part of educating our youth throughout the State.  The NYS Museum in Albany is a critical venue for educating future visitors and supporters of the Park.  Tens of thousands of students come through it every year from all over the State.  The museum is looking to redesign its badly outdated Adirondack displays and we are hoping to work with them to portray the truly amazing environmental achievement we have created in the Adirondack Park, and to make clear that it is something our next generation should be very proud of.