How to Build a Modern Park
The Catskill Center co-chairs the Catskill Park Coalition. Each year the Coalition leads Catskill Park Awareness Day in Albany, a lobby day for the Catskill region. Here's a behind the scenes look at this year's event. For more details on this year's request, visit our event page.
This past Tuesday I woke up around 4 am, made an enormous pot of coffee, and checked the forecast. Just 1-2" of snow, a nice dusting. Phew!
It was a very different story last year. The night before Catskill Park Awareness Day 2015, we had about a foot of snow or more dumped on the Catskills. The 10 or so volunteers we had planned on acting as team leaders were all going to be late, or worse, snowed-in. We went from about 40 registered attendees, who would've been lead by those 10 leaders, down to a dozen and change. Nevertheless, that handful of folks who made it to Albany still managed to meet with at least half of the more than 40 legislators we'd made appointments with. Those we couldn't send a team to received a hand delivery of the literature outlining the priority requests of the Catskill Park Coalition. Even though we were thoroughly thwarted by the weather in Albany in February (we aren't masochists! More on why we do this in the dead of winter later), we still managed to secure an historic line item in the state budget for the Catskills, the first of its kind, in the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation's Aid to Localities budget.
So, just an inch or so this year? I'll take it!
I checked to make sure the Catmobile (my pet name for the Catskill Center's electric car, charged by the solar array at our office) was charged up. It was filled to the brim with with 50 packets to be distributed to legislators later in the day, in addition to all kinds of materials we had prepared for tabling throughout the day.
Driving through the Schoharie Valley on my way up to Albany I was shocked by the predawn beauty. Those scenic vistas that opened up with a dusting of pure white snow threw red barns into stunning contrast in the silver light. I remembered coming to the Catskills for the first time almost a decade ago, driving part of this same route. This region is so profoundly beautiful. Drained by the monotonous cacophony of New York City, where I used to live, the first time those weary eyes came upon the Catskills it all seemed unreal, too beautiful. But there I was again, proud to represent this region I now call home.
In Albany we checked on the last minute RSVPs which now began to approach 100. With general attrition for an event like this we could safely expect about 50 to actually show up to Albany. A huge improvement over last year. An online petition that was circulated by our friends and Coalition co-chairs, Catskill Mountainkeeper, was climbing to nearly 2,000. 1,700 people had viewed our most recent post on Facebook about the event. Seems like we got the word out.
In years past, before the establishment of the Coalition, as the Catskill Center individually, we would sit in meetings with legislators explaining why we needed more support from the State. Our trails were being degraded without appropriate stewardship. Vogue and Travel + Leisure were profiling the Blue Hole again as a must-see spot and now water quality was being impacted. The New York Times was listing the Catskills as one of the top 100 places on the planet to visit. How was the State prepared to handle the influx of visitors on our public lands, our Forever Wild land, if the Division of Lands and Forests was budgeted just three nickels per acre? Invasive species had begun entering parts of the Catskills we never thought possible, with Albany and the Adirondacks likely next. How were our representatives in Albany going to help us make sure we provided an excellent experience to our residents and visitors in the Catskills? How could we protect our region? How could we provide for our communities?
At the end of the meeting, more than a few legislators would lean in and ask, "so, where are the Catskills again?"
Because of conversations like that the Catskill Park Coalition was formed and Catskill Park Awareness Day was created. If our representatives in Albany didn't know where the Catskills were, how could we expect strong state support for our region?
We now regularly meet with our local legislators (who of course know where the Catskills are) who represent any portion of the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve; Assemblywoman Gunther, Assemblyman Lopez, Assemblyman Cahill, Assemblywoman Tenney, Assemblyman Crouch and Senator Seward, Senator Bonacic, and Senator Amedore. Every fall, before Catskill Park Awareness Day, we travel all across the Catskill region meeting with these local representatives either in district offices or in Albany. During these fall meetings we preview what our final requests will be on Catskill Park Awareness Day. We take their input and impressions on our requests, gauge what will likely be most successful and refine our requests and messaging. We meet with the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Governor's direct report for environmental issues.
Finally, on a Tuesday in February, we take our finalized list and essentially blitz Albany, meeting with legislators from Niagara Falls to Montauk. We meet with the chair of every committee that has anything to do with the interests of the Catskill region. We meet with the direct reports of the Governor and the top brass of DEC.
This meeting happens in February because this is the start of the major budget negotiations for the year which will continue on into the spring. This year we met with 47 legislators in the Senate and the Assembly. As far as I know, no one asked where the Catskills were this year. For those downstate legislators who sit on committees like Environmental Conservation, if their interest started to wane during the meeting, we reminded them that 90% of New York City's drinking water comes from the Catskills. They had better care about the Catskills.
This year, before we had even completed our morning meetings, a letter had begun circulating throughout the Assembly, with a paired letter in the Senate, specifically requesting support through a budget sign on letter for our number one priority request of the state. Before lunchtime we had received an official proclamation from Assemblywoman Markey who is Chair of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development. All of this momentum was built on the Governor's proposed executive budget which listed funding for the Environmental Protection Fund at $300M, higher than ever before.
With the historic line item in last year's budget we will soon begin a comprehensive recreation planning process that will knit together the mosaic of public lands in the Catskills, providing a greater diversity of recreational opportunities throughout the region, while breaking a backlog of priority projects that haven't been funded in years. This plan will begin to connect our Main Streets to our public lands in a way that protects our environment and provides an economic boost through recreational tourism. With the progress we've already made just since this past Tuesday, we think we are well on our way towards building a modern park that protects and stewards our Forever Wild lands, while providing a resource that works for our region's communities.
I want to personally thank everyone who made their way to Albany this year and did such a tremendous job. I want to thank everyone who picked up the phone and called their local legislator to let them know how important the Catskills are to them. I want to thank everyone who signed our online petition, wrote a letter, or told a friend about our work. I am proud to represent this beautiful region and help insure that New York State continues its leading legacy of first in the nation conservation.
Because of you, we are continuing to build a modern park.
This post was written by Erik Johanson, Advocacy & Outreach Project Manager for the Catskill Center.