Despite numerous studies conducted over the years by a variety of entities, there is little current data available on the number of visitors to the Adirondack Park, their preferences for activities or estimates of their expenditures.
Due to the fact that there are no gates, toll booths or similar entrances into the Adirondack Park, regional tourism officials can only offer estimates on the total number of visitors to the Adirondack region.
The most recent figures provided by the Adirondack Tourism Council estimates that 7 to 9 million tourists stay an average of 2 to 2.5 days each year.
However, a federal study reported that 10 million visitors spent about two days (16 to 22.5 million visitor nights) in the Park.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of visitors report the primary purpose of their visit was "nature based."
This should come as no surprise, as nearly half of the park's 6.5 million acres are open to public use and the majority of these lands require no fee.
Public access to state lands is free.
Given that 90 percent of all Americans claim to have participated in at least one outdoor recreational activity over the last 12 months, the potential economic impact of a fee-based program for recreational access is considerable.
Although fewer than 130,000 residents live in the Park year-round, the region hosts an estimated 70,000 seasonal residents and is within a day's drive for over 90 million people.
Is it time for a "pay to play" recreation fee? Could such a program offer a regional economic stimulus and enhance the recreational experience? Would the region's environmental community embrace the idea or go to battle?
Pay to play
The Adirondack Park, considered one of the world's greatest experiments in environmental protection, has been recognized as a shining example of a "park with people" that coexist seamlessly with nature.
Created as a "Central Park for the world," the Adirondacks have been kept "forever wild for the free use and enjoyment" by constitutional convention for over a century.
Free use of public lands is a component of our national, frontier heritage of free movement. It is a value as sacred as apple pie on the Fourth of July. We live in a place with lands so vast that citizens can generally go where they wish, when they want, so long as they do no harm.
The concept of recreational user fees violates the valuable heritage of freedom of movement. However, it is time for those who regularly enjoy this heritage to guarantee that we have quality places to bike, hike, hunt and paddle in the future. If we want to continue to camp and hike, ski and fish, the discussion must begin soon.
If the purchase of an Access Pass was mandatory for all users of state lands, instead of being a voluntary contribution, it could generate an enormous amount of funding for conservation, environmental protection and recreational infrastructure.
The effort may also serve to reduce some of the friction that currently exists between the park's various user groups. It would put everyone in the same boat.
It's important to note that 100 percent of hunting, trapping and fishing license fees go directly back to conservation. Every time an angler buys a rod or reel, or when a hunter purchases a firearm or a bow, a portion of these funds are also dedicated to wildlife conservation through a built in, federal excise tax on those products. These funds are distributed back to the states based on annual sporting license sales.
Together, hunters and anglers contribute about $1.9 billion annually to conservation that would not otherwise exist. In fact, hunters and anglers are the nation's primary source of funding for wildlife conservation. Without their financial contributions, conservation as we know it would cease to exist in our country. For hunters, trappers and anglers, mandatory contributions are included in the purchase of an annual license. But license sales can no longer support everyone's fish, wildlife and other outdoor sporting adventures.
Yet, very few opportunities exist for skiers, paddlers, hikers, birders, bikers, climbers and other non-consumptive outdoor travelers to contribute financially to the Conservation Fund.
Too often, hunters and sportsmen fail to recognize the value of all the grunt work that many volunteers put into trail maintenance. It is a myth that 'self propelled travelers' contribute nothing to fund recreation in the Forest Preserve. There simply isn't a viable method.
If outdoor folk want to insure there is available first aid and emergency help for them in bad situations, habitat to enjoy and an educated and user-friendly department, they're going to have to ante up. We've all got to figure out a method to pay our fair share.
Experts in the field agree on the only long-term solution: "Nonhunters and nonanglers-the overwhelming majority of the population-must contribute on a regular basis."
Establishing a fund dedicated to outdoor recreation and trail improvement would assist in the development, maintenance and accessibility of New York's recreational infrastructure and extensive trail systems.
Such an effort would help establish parity between the various user groups and serve to bridge the growing divide between conservationists and environmentalists.
Some may view such efforts as the commercialization of public lands or as Edward Abbey labeled it, 'Industrial Tourism' and 'Wreckreation' or the Disneyfication of outdoor recreation.
However, the federal government and several states have already begun collecting user fees. The Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act, passed by Congress in 2004, authorized four agencies-the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service-to charge access fees in areas that fall under a broad definition of "high use."
In Wisconsin, user fees and state taxes provide most of the money for operating state parks, forests, and trails. The fees include vehicle admission stickers, state trail passes, and camping fees. A trail pass is required for all people age 16 or older biking, in-line skating, horseback riding, or cross-country skiing on certain designated trails.
In high use areas at some National Forests, there are now vending machines at major trailheads to dispense trail passes via cash or credit card. Cars parked at select trailheads are required to display a trailhead parking pass, which costs $15 for a season or $5 for three days. Failure to display the pass is punishable by a mandatory $250 fine.
Next week's column will investigate methods to implement, collect and enforce user fees.
Reader's suggestions and comments are most welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at email@example.com