Catskill Park Awareness Day

  • Empire State Plaza Albany, NY
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Catskill Park Awareness Day

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7TH, 2017
NEW YORK STATE CAPITOL 

ALBANY, NY

A Vision for the Catskill Park

The Catskill Park Coalition was thrilled to see the inclusion of, at a minimum, $5M to support the Catskills through the Adventure NY proposal during the recent State of the State address. The proposal suggests that those funds would go towards promotion and stewardship of the region, we would like to see specific details for that proposal. We applaud Senators Seward and Amedore for taking up our cause to improve the Catskill Park by developing the first line item in the state budget, through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Aid to Localities budget, establishing a $500,000 line for the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve. This state support will help us break through a backlog of public access and stewardship enhancement projects, promote the park and support permanent sustainable jobs in our region. We thank the senators for their strong support to help us build a stronger park. The funding is supporting a comprehensive regional recreation plan for the Catskill Park, that will identify how to better connect communities to the park, provide recreational improvements and take advantage of the Catskill Park as an economic driver for the region.

We also wish to express deep gratitude towards Governor Cuomo for his support last year of a fully funded Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) budgeted at $300 million. The EPF supports a variety of projects throughout the region and we hope that stewardship funds will continue to support work to protect public land in the Catskills, specifically that funds go towards the support of the “Save the Hemlocks” project, in collaboration with Cornell University. If we can stop the spread of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid in the Catskills, we can protect New York, the state with the highest population of hemlock in the country, and perhaps protect the northeastern US. We also hope that stewardship funds used in the Catskills support programs like the Catskill Environmental Research and Monitoring (CERM) conference, ideally administered through a partner like the Cary Institute.

We hope that between the DEC Aid to Localities budget, the EPF and other state funding sources a “Catskills Package” can be developed supporting both enhanced access to, and stewardship of, our public lands ultimately providing a world-class experience for visitors and residents alike that strengthens the economy on Main Street and our natural environment.

The economy of the Catskill region is built on the natural beauty of its forever wild land. To further preserve and enhance this region’s economy we ask for an appropriate funding level of $10 million from a multitude of sources that will form a “Catskills Package” to support the region. Few other places on earth contain so much abundant undisturbed land so close to so many millions of people. With few options for economic development, appropriate access to the more than 450,000 acres of public land within the Catskill region is the key feasible foundation for economic opportunity. Access for the millions who rely on its open space, facilitated by acquisition of the key access points of unprotected land within park boundaries, will significantly enhance economic opportunity while meeting Governor Cuomo’s conservation goals and principles, in line with New York State’s proud and leading legacy of first-in-the-nation conservation.

A region with the cultural and historical significance of a National Park just two hours from the largest population center in the country is held back by an outdated recreation plan, limited funding for public access to land, and urgent unmet needs of various stewardship programs.  After more than a century of public investment, the Catskill Park is increasingly threatened by years of inadequate funding, putting into risk the stature, value and viability of this spectacular public amenity.

With dedicated annual funding we can ensure that the New York City watershed lands are integrated into a recreational strategy that provides economic leverage while protecting our most vital resources. Consistent funding from the Catskills Package increases will allow the Catskills to proactively and strategically plan while appropriately managing this extraordinary resource. 

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2017 Priority Requests

  • Continuation of Catskill Park Aid to Localities line in the amount of $550,000 with $500,000 towards access and stewardship projects, directed to the Catskill Watershed Corporation and $50,000 towards staffing and operations costs at the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, directed to the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, who manages the Catskill Interpretive Center on behalf of the NYSDEC;

  • $4 million in funding to support Catskill Park stewardship, improvements and maintenance by the NYSDEC and through contracts such as the Catskill Conservation Corps, Professional Trail Crews and Summit/Trail Stewards to increase stewardship efforts to match the growing number of visitors in the Catskill Park. Continuing scientific efforts such as the Catskill Environmental Research & Monitoring (CERM) program by directing funding to the Cary Institute to manage this program;

  • Providing at least $2 million in support of the “Save the Hemlocks” initiative led by Cornell University to reduce the impact of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on hemlock trees by developing effective biocontrol (Laricobius negrinus) and thereby leveraging funding from Cornell, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and private sources;

  • Funding the Catskill Area Tourism services in the amount of $2 million to improve regional marketing, direct visitors to the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, improve safety and stewardship messaging and provide better connections between the Catskill Park and its communities;

  • Increasing the budget and staffing for the NYSDEC’s Division of Lands and Forest to better manage Catskill Park. Holding annual Forest Ranger Academies to maintain and grow Ranger force to maintain public safety. $1 million; and

  • Completing an economic study for the Catskill Park to capture a snapshot of the region before the Sullivan County casino development - $450,000

BUILDING A BETTER CATSKILL PARK

PUBLIC ACCESS

Public access in the Catskills should be focused on the purpose of trail access, parking lot access and trail connectors that collectively knit together this patchwork mosaic of publicly accessible land. Creating a more visitor-friendly park through simple ease of access will drive visitors to the region, concentrating spending power in our region’s towns and hamlets, growing the region’s economy developing permanent jobs.

The preserved lands in the Catskill Park have been assembled gradually over the past 110 years as land protection opportunities matched the availability of funding.  A focus on preserving high peaks and scenic vistas has created a history of tracts with scarce road access, limited parking and difficult terrain for general public access. Purchases made by New York City focused on willing sellers and water quality criteria and have tended to be a collective patchwork of lands. This resulting mosaic of public lands makes management for recreation and tourism very challenging with limited access between parcels owned by either New York State or New York City, as well as other privately held but publicly accessible lands.

The focus for the next decade of public access must focus on building tourism-friendly public access with continuity and comprehensive integration between city and state land holdings.  A focus on making access points between these parcels, area towns and villages is critical to helping local businesses connect to this vital tourism resource while sustaining access, interest and use.

The comprehensive regional recreation plan, currently being completed with support from the ongoing Aid to Localities line for the Catskill Park will identify access that needs to be improved, will analyze potential trail connections and systems, and will knit together the various communities of the Catskill Park.

FOREST PRESERVE STEWARDSHIP

The Catskill Park Coalition is very concerned about safeguarding the many acres of public lands that contain sensitive ecosystems and provide vital environmental services, such as protecting breeding habitat for migratory forest songbirds and the water supply for New York City. Any successful effort to increase visitation creates a stewardship challenge, thus requiring additional funding.  Nevertheless, analysis by the Trust for Public Land completed in 2012 found that for every $1 dollar of EPF investment in public lands the state gained $7 in economic benefits through natural goods and services. Support from the state for our region through the Catskills Package will have similar returns on investment regionally.

These investments continuously yield sustained and long term economic gains. Recent support and investment in the Catskill region is building great momentum for the park improving the economic vitality of the region. The opening of the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center in 2015; the establishment of the Catskill Conservation Corps; and the work of the Catskill Park Advisory Committee and Catskill Park Coalition are creating a foundation to further cement the economic advancement of the region. Through a Catskills Package we can insure these continuous economic gains.

Funding to upgrade current facilities and build new parking areas, trails and bridges as well as improving ADA-compliant accessibility can be further leveraged by the participation of passionate volunteers and sportsmen, like the Catskill Conservation Corps, who will provide the required labor.  Many of the projects identified during the comprehensive recreation plan process will require stewardship funding, investments that inevitably reap rewards for the region as well as the state. Updating management plans and hiring design experts for mountain biking enhancements, improved signage and natural and cultural resource interpretation, and engagement with the scientific community for assessment of forest system health are also integral parts of appropriate forest preserve stewardship.

The last public access plan for the Catskill Park was completed August 1999. New York City had just begun its public access program, and newer uses like mountain biking were starting to gain popularity. The 1999 plan called for the establishment of new signage, information centers, better promotional tools, building networks of volunteers, and improving access for hiking, fishing, swimming, boating and camping. In the last few years some progress has been made on a few of these recommendations, but without dedicated funding much of this access plan remains unimplemented.

In 2014, for the first time, four New York City reservoirs were opened for recreational boating. We have recently developed a collaborative volunteer group, the Catskill Conservation Corps, which works across the park pulling volunteers from a variety of affinity groups.  

At the same time the Catskill Park is experiencing a new wave of visitors as more and more people understand the value of unplugging and getting out into nature, as well as the increasing pressure from potential development. In Sullivan County (one of the four counties of the Catskills region) a new casino and resort project will be opening soon. This and other projects can only accelerate the demand for public access and create new stewardship challenges for our public land. In other areas we see usage that went from dozens of visitors a day to hundreds today.

Capitalizing on this momentum of visitors and enthusiasm for the Catskill Park, the ideal time is now to develop a new comprehensive plan. Now is the time for an updated blueprint for increased access and recreation as well as sustained economic growth.  

INTEGRATING TOURISM SERVICE BUSINESSES WITH PUBLIC LAND OPPORTUNITIES

After a historic economic decline, the average income of residents in the Catskill Mountain region is nearly 40% below the state average. Small business creation to capitalize on new tourism opportunities can revitalize the moribund economy. We propose that a portion of the Catskills Package funding for the Catskill Park be designated for a grants program to stimulate related business growth and creation. New businesses focusing on interpretation, guide services, hospitality, arts and culture, and recreational equipment will help grow this new green economy.   These grant funds would also be made available to municipalities seeking to reinforce the assets of villages and hamlets that help preserve the heritage of the Catskill Park.

FUNDING TO BUILD A STRONGER PARK

In the current environment of tight competitive funding, these necessary and urgent initiatives are not being implemented rapidly enough. We propose creating an annual funding source for the Catskill region, funded from several EPF lines and other monies such as New York Works, beginning in fiscal year 2016-17.  We project the annual needs for this fund at $10 million a year to address the program and project backlog. Rather than creating any further administrative structure we suggest that this funding be administered by NYS DEC, with advice from the diverse stakeholders of the Catskill Park Advisory Committee.

Now is the time that a dedicated and recurring Catskills Package be established for the region. A Catskills Package insures that obsolete five-year recreation plans are no longer updated just once every few decades. A Catskills Package guarantees that public access occurs in a holistic fashion that benefits both the environment and the economy rather than be restricted by untimely and ad hoc funding availability. A Catskills Package appropriately stewards and protects the land of the Catskills, particularly critical as we now approach the greatest demand for access seen in years, if not in the history of the region. A Catskills Package integrates our natural resources as an economic asset stimulating growth in the villages and hamlets of the Catskills while preserving our heritage. 

This is the year that a recurring $10 million Catskills Package begins to transform the park for the benefit of all.