Back in the ‘70s, visitors to the Shawangunks simply drove onto the shoulder, cut the engine, and scooted into the woods to hike, picnic, or splash in the creek. Idyllic as it may sound (and from a teenage perspective, it was indeed idyllic) such a laissez-faire policy was in no way sustainable for such a fragile ecosystem, especially located a scant hour and a half from a metropolitan area inhabited by over 20 million souls.
When the state took over Minnewaska in 1987, random roadside parking came to a screeching halt. Locals understood this as the lesser evil; had a Marriott Hotel been built there, it seemed likely that that section of the Gunks would have been lost to public use forever. Since 1993, when the state opened Minnewaska State Park Preserve to the public, visitors have steadily increased in 2007, there were an estimated 250,000 guests, and by now, the number is much closer to 300,000. According to a study in 2010, Minnewaska, Sam’s Point (which has since become part of the park, and is, as of this writing, closed until further notice due to fire) and Mohonk Preserve visitors contributed $12.3 million to the local economy and sustained 350 jobs. That was before National Geographic named the Hudson Valley as a Top 20 destination.
Anyone driving Rt. 44/55 on a summer weekend can testify to the fact that the park has a parking problem. State officials have taken notice, and last October Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $7.3 million plan to modernize the gateway to the park and better accommodate the growing number of visitors. Plans include a new 6,000-square-foot visitor center with exhibit and classroom space, public bathrooms and park offices, and a warming hut that accommodates up to 50 visitors, great news for the cross-country ski set.The plan, and the money, are a public/private partnership endeavor between the state and land conservation non-profit Open Space Institute.
The first phase of the multi-year project is the reconstruction of the Route 44/55 entrance to create stacking capacity for vehicles waiting to enter the Preserve and add automated parking fee payment options, relieving traffic congestion on peak visitation days. Park manager Eric Humphrey says it’s not a moment too soon. “The main entrance redesign should alleviate traffic congestion. Currently we can only accommodate six to eight cars ‘on hold,’ once we have this done we can stack up 45. We’re also in the beginning stages of parking reconfiguration. We’ll be able to handle about 350 cars, which is consistent with what we have right now, but the lot will be paved and lined and much more organized. People will be able to self-park, rather than having multiple staff out there directing traffic. We’ve been making do with the gravel lot we inherited from the site’s time as a small private hotel, and we’ve been making it work, but this will create a much better experience for everyone involved.”
There are no plans to add more parking. “Capacity is capped to stay within the carrying capacity of the land to protect the resources. The whole project, in every phase, is designed to that end– to give people a great experience, but also to make it one that will be shared by future generations.”
Humphrey says massive credit is due to the Open Space Institute, which has committed $3 million to the capital project. “We have doubled the size of the preserve over the past forty years with our various acquisitions, and hopefully that adds some breathing room,” says Eileen Larrabee, OSI’s communications director. “There is always a balance in trying to maintain what is special and allow the public to appreciate it. When you think about Minnewaska and how it was formed, people arrive at the entrance point without much guidance about what to see and how to plan for it. The visitor’s center will help with that, and so will reclaiming the carriage roads, which open up a lot more options for visitors to enjoy.” The OSI has restored 22 miles of the 35-mile carriage road network, and is restoring two more roads this summer..
Skills for the Cats
To the northwest, the Catskill Forest Preserve is made up of 287,500 acres of state-owned wild lands within the Catskill Park, which stretches over parts of Ulster, Greene, Sullivan and Delaware counties. Yet even with that much space, careful management is required to ensure that visitors have the best possible time while inflicting the least possible damage.
Happily for the Catskills and their company, the Maurice D. Hinchey Interpretive Center– opened in Mt. Tremper in 2015 under the management of the nonprofit Catskill Center. The Center has been advocating for the protection and stewardship of the 700,000 acre park since 1969, striving to balance the needs of towns and private landowners with the operation of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, many thousands of visitors out to recreate, and the habitats themselves.
Michael Drillinger, project coordinator for the Hinchey Center, says that having a visitor’s center –as the privately held Mohonk Preserve has had since 1998, and as the state park expects to break ground on sometime between now and 2018–is a huge asset in managing guest flow. “We’re very conscious of all the choke points,” he says. “For example, the parkings area for spots like Giants Ledge and Blue Hole, the spots that have gotten into the New York metropolitan media. We try to direct people to alternate places. It results in a lot less frustration. For example, the parking areas for Panther Mountain, Giants’ Ledge and Slide Mountain are typically packed on a weekend. But what most people don’t realize is that just a mile farther down the road, we have the Biscuit Brook parking area, and there’s an easy two mile walk to a really nice spot from there. And there are a lot of places that haven’t made it into the mainstream press that we can direct you to. Last summer it was a huge issue that too many people wanted to swim at Blue Hole. What they didn’t realize was that right in the same area they could go to Kanape Brook. Part of our purpose here at the Interpretive Center is giving suggestions of lovely places people can go that are less utilized.”
Littering in well-publicized spots has been a subject of concern lately, but Drillinger says he is optimistic that patience, persistence and education will improve matters. “I think that situation was captured beautifully by a DEC fellow at a recent meeting,” he says. “He approached some visitors about their garbage, and they said, ‘You don’t have cleanup staff?’ They were accustomed to the fact that in city parks, staff are paid to pick up trash. When the officer explained to them about carry in, carry out, they got it and abided by it. They weren’t being dirty on purpose; it was the context they were coming from. The DEC did a poor job managing the Blue Hole situation at the beginning of the summer, but by the end of the summer, it got noticeably much better. They had a dumpster, the right kind of signage.”
The interpretive center was built and is owned by the state, while the Catskill Center operates it and raises funds. “We’ve created something called the Catskill Coalition to lobby Albany for funding for the park, and established the Catskill Park Advisory Committee with the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference so we can advise the DEC and the DEP about how to spend the monies that get raised,” says Drillinger. “The DEC is learning to adjust to the influx. We want more people to come and play, visit, eat and shop.To make it a great experience we have to improve, with things like parking, signage, and composting toilets at trailheads. All of that is in the works.”
Besides directing traffic, interpretive centers educate visitors about the importance and preservation of the places they are about to enjoy. The CIC hosts geology lectures, economic development forums and climate change seminars. The Mohonk Preserve’s center offers indoor exhibits and short, self-guided interpretive trails to help guests get acclimated. The planned visitor center at Minnewaska will include exhibit space and classroom space for environmental education programs, as well as public bathrooms and park offices. The center will also bring potable drinking water to the park for the first time.
It’s something of a delicate dance but, as Drillinger says of the DEC, all involved are getting better at it. And everyone’s eyes are on the prize: preserving our wild lands while enhancing the delight and ease of visiting and playing in them.
“We want people to have a wonderful experience and bring their children, and those children will grow up to appreciate the land and become stewards in their own right,” says Larrabee. “It’s the only way to build the next generation of people who will carry this work forward.”