The long promised public unveiling of the Wildlands Monitoring Guidance by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), once again, did not occur. It was planned for the March APA Board meeting and was pulled from the agenda during that two-day meeting. What is so secret about it? Nothing, actually. So, why the repeated lack of transparency over multiple years?
It appears that APA and DEC administrators are not understanding that Wildlands Monitoring is a planning and management process and framework – it is NOT a final plan, so it will never be “finished for presentation.” A report would start a process. Or maybe the implied accountability of using monitoring is daunting to administrators? Let’s explore these issues.
The concept of the Wildlands Monitoring Guidance is nothing new, startling, or controversial. The concept of monitoring change is widely accepted in resource and recreation management across the United States and around the world. DEC has written Wildlands Monitoring into recent Unit Management Plans (UMP). Wildlands Monitoring replaced previous monitoring terminology in UMPs, over the past decade, called Limits of Acceptable Change. Monitoring is being and has been practiced by APA and DEC field staff who are trained, practiced, and using these approaches in the field during recent years on a UMP-by-UMP basis.
The recently released High Peaks Advisory Group (HPAG) report refers to the Visitor Use Monitoring (VUM) Framework and the “soon-to-be-released” Wildlands Monitoring Guidance has added VUM into its title and narrative. VUM is simply the latest version of this type of planning and management framework. The VUM was developed by the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council (six federal public agencies) to standardize the terminology and support interagency dialogue and cooperation, and the Council documents are available on the National Park Service’s website at: https://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov
The substantive difference between the Wildlands Monitoring Guidance and the VUM proposed by HPAG is one of scale. The Wildlands Monitoring Guidance was designed by APA and DEC field staff to address localized and specific management issues (like visitor impacts at campsites and on hiking trails) and the VUM framework is designed to work on a wide range of resource and visitor use issues over large and small geographic areas. Both can and should work well together, if a VUM was ever developed for a large geographic and complex UMP area like the High Peaks Wilderness.
Why is it unlikely there will ever be “Final Plan” using the Wildlands Monitoring Guidance or the VUM? The answer is that it is a planning and management process and framework – so that process and framework can be described and examples given. However, the power of this monitoring concept is that it is meant to be applied repeatedly over time to monitor change in Wilderness and Wild Forest conditions, assess whether management is effective in achieving management goals, and adapting management actions and techniques to achieve goals; hence, the term widely used for this ongoing process is “adaptive management.” We can describe the process and report periodically on the results, but cannot say what is final.
Here is a good example of monitoring from the world of water quality management. Swimming beaches in New York State are monitored for the presence of Escherichia coli (E.coli) because science has determined that this is a good bacterial indicator of impaired water quality. Water samples are taken once a week and analyzed for E. coli and a result of 235 or more E. coli colonies per 100 ml of water exceeds the state standard for safe swimming conditions. Management of the sources of E. coli must be addressed and monitoring continued to determine if the conditions have improved or not. The monitoring and any need for a change in management interventions needs to be ongoing to ensure that the waters are safe for human contact and swimming.
In the same ways, using scientific information, managers can select indicators, set standards, begin monitoring, and use the adaptive management process for managing all aspects of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, including such diverse topics as invasive species, visitor experiences, campsite conditions, carrying capacity, and Wild Forest and Wilderness resource conditions. Monitoring is needed for adapting management actions and techniques to ensure that protection and visitor management goals are being met.
Based on more than two decades of meetings with DEC staff and administrators regarding visitor and resource management in the Forest Preserve, and more than four years on the APA Board, this author offers the following two observations:
- DEC administrators are daunted by the additional transparency and accountability that are integral to a VUM process and the HPAG report strongly encourages them to engage VUM and adaptive management; and
- APA and DEC field staff are ready, willing, and able to proceed provided they receive the support of their administrators to implement the Wildlands Monitoring Guidance and VUM and receive some modest field instruments to take and record their field monitoring efforts.
Monitoring supports science and data-based adaptive management while providing both transparency and accountability to the public for managing our shared, “forever wild,” public Forest Preserve.
By Chad Dawson, Adirondack Wild Board member and former APA Board member