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Measuring A Footstep 

Measuring A Footstep 

By Kayla White

As more and more people get out to enjoy public lands, alpine summits continue to be sought-­after hiking destinations. Yet, these places are also home to fragile alpine plants that are sensitive to hikers’ footsteps. To protect these fragile plants, in 1989, under the leadership of a team of concerned individuals and organizations, the ­Adirondack High Peaks ­Summit Stewardship Program was ­created.

A decade later, the program established a ­photographic monitor­ing system to better study the relationship among hiker ­trampling, ­vegetation ­regrowth and persistence, and hiker ­education and outreach. In the years since, this system has been a critical tool in measuring the impact that summit stewards have and developing ­strategies to continue protecting New York’s alpine zone. 

Establishing A Baseline 

Alpine biologist Matt Scott implemented the photopoint monitoring system using historical photographs that focused on highly damaged areas. These baseline photographs were taken from the 1960s through the 1990s during Dr. Edwin Ketchledge’s revegetation efforts to document soil erosion and vegetation damage. With Ketchledge’s assistance, Scott located the point where each photograph was taken. The locations were then marked in the field with a small nail which was drilled into the bedrock and directions were recorded so photos could be taken in the same spot again over time. 

Photopoint monitoring is an unobtrusive, low-impact way to track plant recovery over time. Initial objectives were to create a library of images for educational purposes, document alpine recovery, and evaluate the success of the Summit Steward­ship Program. Beyond that, these images have been used by other ­researchers to study vegetation trends, examine shifts in treeline, and illustrate past and present herd paths. Each of these projects has added to our knowledge and understanding of northeastern alpine areas. 

photopoint monitor tech takes photos

A Surprise Finding 

In 2009, the photographs were analyzed to estimate the percentage of rock, soil, and vegetation visible. Analysis revealed that alpine areas were recovering and that peaks with a summit steward presence since the beginning of the program—Mt. Marcy and Algonquin Peak—had recovered significantly compared to mountains without regular summit steward coverage. The photopoint monitoring project and the Summit Stewardship Program were deemed a success. 

However, this analysis was before the recent exponential increase in hikers. Between 2009 and 2014, summit stewards saw a 73 percent increase in the number of hikers on the tallest peaks. In 2015, summit stewards retook these photographs, and a new analysis was done to test whether traditional methods of alpine stewardship could protect the alpine ecosystem in the face of high visitor ­numbers. 

A comparison of the photographs taken in 2009 and 2015 showed no statistically significant change in vegetation. That might sound negative, but since alpine vegetation recovers less as the years go on, this is a hugely positive finding. It was expected that plants would be declining due to the increase of hikers, especially since the photographs targeted areas of impact around trails. Though this does not account for other potential impacts, such as climate change, the results indicate that educational outreach remains a powerful tool for protecting alpine plants even during times of high use. 

Two people stretch a measuring tape over a rock

Updating Our Approach 

Research has suggested that vegetation recovery along trails in the Adirondack alpine zone is due in part to management actions such as outreach, education by summit stewards, trail maintenance, and signage. Our original photopoint methodologies, however, did not provide enough information to completely confirm these links.  

In partnership with the New York Natural Heritage Program, the Summit Stewardship Program began revising and updating the photopoint monitoring program in 2021 by incorporating a more rigorous sampling strategy and analysis. This was undertaken also to make the project align with current photopoint monitoring standards, ensuring that the methods are useful and transferable, and can contribute to a photopoint monitoring standard that can be used throughout the region.  

Furthermore, by pursuing these changes, photopoint monitoring can become a critical tool in adaptive managements strategies used by land managers. In practice, it looks like this: stewards observe damage to alpine plants and soil, solutions are suggested, management actions are implemented, recovery or further damage is measured, and success is assessed. If further steps need to be implemented to protect alpine plants, the process starts over again. 

In 2021 and 2022, stewards retook the fifty-nine established photopoints, added new ones, reevaluated the project, and updated the methodology. New locations were found to better represent management techniques and damaged areas in the alpine ecosystem. This year, we plan to release the results of those findings, which will help better determine if and how recent increases in visitor use have impacted the alpine zone. 

Research to measure the effectiveness of their educational outreach and trail maintenance efforts is a critically important part of the work summit stewards do. In the past thirty years, over a hundred summit stewards have educated approximately six hundred thousand hikers with a simple message: when we think about where we put our feet, we can protect a beautiful place.

As ADK’s stewardship manager, Kayla White helps to oversee many of ADK’s stewardship programs including the Hurricane Fire Tower Stewardship Program, ­Summit Stewardship Program, and Trailhead Stewardship Program. 

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