In addition to contributing to clean water and healthy ecosystems, conserved lands are important to human health and safety.
Almost 40% of the land area in the Lake Champlain Basin is conserved (Figure 20). The Adirondack Park, Green Mountain National Forest, Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, state parks and forests, and other parcels protected by local communities and land trusts contribute to the health of the environment and Basin communities.
The natural wetland systems found within these conserved lands provide important ecosystem functions including ground water storage, pollution reduction, and flood control. A 2016 study of Otter Creek found that wetlands and floodplains reduced flood damage by up to 78% in a 10-year period, limiting property damage and recovery costs significantly.
Conserved lands have an important role in protecting biodiversity and are home to many plants and animals that benefit human health. Studies show that West Nile virus can spread more easily in areas with low bird diversity, while a greater diversity of small mammals can limit the spread of Lyme disease and hantavirus.
As places of rejuvenation, inspiration, and sustenance, conserved lands are vital to human health.
Residents and visitors to the Basin hike, bike, camp, ski, bird-watch, fish, and hunt on conserved lands throughout the year. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the importance of these areas to the physical and emotional well-being of those who visit them.
When the pandemic closed gyms and limited access to indoor public spaces in 2020, people flocked to the outdoors in record numbers. Most New York and Vermont state campgrounds opened a month later than usual in 2020 with capacity restrictions ranging from 50-75 percent. Even with those limitations, visitation matched previous years, which shows the importance of our public camping facilities (Figure 21). Trail use numbers from the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and the Green Mountain Club (GMC) indicate that the Basin’s conserved lands were heavily used. Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Basin and in the state of New York, experienced a record number of hikers in 2020 with an average of 111 people on its summit each day in July and August.
Summit stewards counted more than 300 people on sunny Saturdays. In Vermont, the GMC reported that use of the Long Trail jumped 35% in 2020 and that shelter use in September 2020 increased by 80%.
The impact caused by increased use was evident in 2020. Stewards reported more trash along paths, and additional visitors contributed to a trail network already stressed by erosion, overcrowding, and user conflicts. Land managers expect these trends to continue. Use of the High Peaks Region in the Adirondacks has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges. Overcrowding has led to significant erosion, impact, and conflict in this trail network. In January 2020, the New York High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group proposed a series of recommendations to immediately address overcrowding, including implementing a pilot trailhead shuttle system, enhancing interagency coordination on parking and pedestrian safety, installing more portable toilets, and increasing the amount of stewardship and Leave No Trace education programs.