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This Month in ADK History: The Summit Stewardship Program

This Month in ADK History: The Summit Stewardship Program

June 15, 2022

ADK has been teaching people how to explore and protect New York’s public lands and waters since 1922. In those hundred years, it is hard to find a program involving ADK that has been more influential and impactful than the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program. Ever since its founding in 1989, it has led a remarkable recovery in alpine vegetation in the High Peaks Wilderness.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Adirondack Park’s alpine ecosystem was in peril. Amidst a backpacking boom, trampling by hikers and campers led to widespread alpine vegetation loss in the High Peaks region, particularly on Marcy and Algonquin. Thin soils, short seasons, and slow growth meant that this ecosystem was particularly sensitive to human impacts, a fact that became more and more apparent as the years went on.

In response, the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which studied this ecosystem, began looking for solutions in the late 80s. Seeking an educational approach, they took inspiration from Vermont’s Ranger/Naturalist Program, which still runs today, and proposed the creation of a similar program for the Adirondack High Peaks in December of 1989. Their vision was to put stewards on summits to teach hikers about alpine ecosystems and how to protect them.

But running a backcountry education program in the remote and wild Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness would be no small task. Recognizing this, The Nature Conservancy reached out to two organizations to form a trio of partners: ADK and the NYSDEC. With property located close to high peaks trails and capacity to house stewards, ADK was brought in to hire and manage staff for the program. The NYSDEC would provide equipment and logistical support in the backcountry. Combined with The Nature Conservancy’s funding and ecological expertise, the three organizations formed a stable foundation for the Summit Stewardship Program.

The results of this partnership have been nothing short of incredible. In the 32 years since summit stewards first ascended high peaks, alpine vegetation has rebounded across the region. Where there were once bare patches of gravel and dirt, there are now lush fields of alpine vegetation.

Over that same time span, summit stewards have educated over 600,000 hikers on mountaintops. That’s more people than the current population of Baltimore, Maryland. Their friendly, educational presence has shown people how they can protect these beautiful—yet fragile—landscapes as they enjoy them. And it’s more than just talk: summit stewards have been successful in quantifying this impact through photopoint monitoring, which has given them visual proof of the link between education and alpine ecosystem recovery.

As the Summit Stewardship Program has grown, so too has ADK. Helping found and manage this program has irrevocably changed the organization by expanding the scope of its educational outreach. It’s a success story that we are proud of and excited to continue developing as ADK enters its second century.

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