Should We Stop Bushwhacking the Catskills?

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Herd path

Informal Trail between Table and Lone

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Mountainkeeper hosted a webinar on the topic of informal trail networks in our region and the damage they cause to plants and wildlife. Nearly 170 people tuned in for a great conversation.

Relatively few hikers hike off-trail. However, as you’ll see, it doesn’t take very many hikers walking through a pristine area before obvious signs of wear and tear begin to show up.

For new hikers, the word bushwhacking refers to off-trail hiking — that is, using map and compass, or GPS, to navigate the backcountry where there are no trails.

The Mountainkeeper webinar included presentations from a Senior Natural Resource Planner from the DEC, an Ecologist from New York National Heritage Program, and a USGS Scientist with expertise in recreation ecology who also has long experience analyzing the kinds of problems the Catskills currently face.

If you missed it, you can watch a full recording on Mountainkeeper’s website.

strata heat maps graphic
Formal vs Informal trail traffic

Informal Trails in the Catskills

Here are my TL;DR notes from the session…

  • 2019 saw the start of monitoring the peaks to get a baseline
  • Technology has increased hiking and usage on these peaks
  • Hiking challenges too
  • Strava heat maps are being used to get an indication of traffic patterns and overall usage (imperfect, obviously, but incredibly helpful)
  • Over 500% increase in visits since 2009
  • Even the most difficult bushwhacks (eg Cornell to Dink to Friday) are seeing forest degradation
  • All data is surely an under-representation of actual numbers
  • There is a set of Informal Trail Conditions Classes 1-5 to help describe how badly an informal trail is impacting the soil and forest (see graphic below)
  • Only 40% or so of people surveyed are using any kind of navigational app to assist their hikes!
  • Bushwhack summits have undergone severe degradation (this is clear to me even though I only started hiking in 2018)
  • Informal trails are not sustainable and lead, very quickly, to major erosion problems 
  • Several feet of soil erosion has happened on some informal trails
  • In one study of a sensitive area (not the Catskills) there was 1.4 miles of formal trail and over 9 miles of informal trails!
  • The habit of Bicknell’s Thrush (the basis of the 3500 Club Challenge) is threatened
  • Springtime is a sensitive time because of ground nesting birds hatching our their young in May and June — so impacts can be a problem, especially with dogs off-leash
  • Winter is a good time to hike because the ground is frozen / covered
  • Summits are particularly vulnerable because we all tend to hang out for a while, resting and snacking, and the damage there is quite extensive 
  • Multiple informal trails between destinations leads to major forest fragmentation and degradation — formal trails and helpful signage would probably eliminate 99% of this
  • ”The current situation is unacceptable“
  • “These are no longer trail-less peaks”
  • The choice is now between old style permits-per-day for an area, or switching to sustainably designed trails
  • In the meantime, there are simple things that can be done to improve the situation in terms of installing basic visual cues, nudge signage, etc
  • Public surveys and management plans are on the way (very soon)
Informal Trail Condition Classes
Informal Trail Condition Classes

Should We Stop Bushwhacking?

Near the end of the presentation I asked, “How can hikers best use the mountains right now, in terms of bushwhacking? Should we cool it for a while?” 

This question would have occurred to anyone watching these presentations, because the damage reports presented were so concerning. Time was short and my question wasn’t picked up. But it’s probably also a question few would feel good about answering definitively right now. 

So, what to do?

We bushwhackers are currently, in aggregate, damaging the mountains we love. Yet this is also how trails get built! Foot traffic eventually leads to trail infrastructure.

IMO, we are currently in a “messy middle” situation. It’s not easy to figure out the best actions. In time, once formal trails are in place, the mountains will recover.

It will be interesting to see how local bodies respond to these concerns.

Update / Oct 27, 2022: The Catskills 3500 Club has issued a statement on their position.

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Questions & Answers

After the main presentation, there was a short Q&A section. Here are my quick notes from that segment…

  • Next steps: evaluate data collected over the summer and look to see if certain areas should be discouraged 
  • DEC is collecting soil loss data and looking at where sustainable trails might be implemented
  • DEC has a webpage for Catskills Trail-less Peaks with a lot of data, open for questions and comments on the process / google “catskill visitor user management” and you will find it here
  • Springtime is a sensitive time because of ground nesting birds hatching our their young in May and June — so impacts can be a problem, especially with dogs off-leash
  • Mud season is a problem too, with more significant impacts
  • Winter is a good time because the ground is covered and/or frozen
  • Summits are where the most impact is being felt ecologically because that’s where informal trails converge and foot traffic is highest
  • Even a smaller area defined by log borders can reduce the spread and size of summit impacts
  • The choice is now between old style permits-per-day for an area, or switching to sustainably designed trails
Balsam Cap Herd Path
Exposed roots on the herd path up to Balsam Cap

Full Notes

Here are my full notes from the webinar:

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