Sherret Chase and the Catskill Center, an environmental match
Last week, we explored the youth and professional life of geneticist and corn breeder Sherret S. Chase of Ashokan, now approaching his 100th birthday. Now we’ll take a look at the activities he has undertaken on behalf of his beloved Catskill Mountains, often in tandem with his daughter, Helen Chase, currently president of the Historical Society of the Town of Olive.
When Sherret was studying the history of the property his family purchased in Olive in 1921, he found deeds dating back to the early years of settlement by the Winchell clan. He wrote, “I was pleased and amused to note that an earlier version of the Winchell name was Van Winchell and, even earlier, Van Winkle!”
This quintessentially Catskillian observation opens an essay Chase wrote in 1967, when, at 49, he had focused his attention on forestry while on a fellowship at Harvard. The essay, entitled “The Catskills of New York: Past, Present, Potential” was reprinted in a local newspaper and caught the attention of Delaware County landowner Kingdon Gould, leading directly to the establishment of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD), with Sherret as president.
Sherret’s essay, after eloquently summarizing the geography and history of the region, suggested that the greatest danger to the Catskills lay in the increasing population. Sherret expressed confidence that the landscape could support more residents economically without devastating the environment, but “only if regional land use is carefully and responsibly planned.” He urged the creation of a regional governmental authority to coordinate the needs of the seven Catskills counties, and as well as alliances of various groups — what we would call today “stakeholders” — such as “historical associations, garden clubs, sportsmen’s clubs, farmers’ organizations, groups of resort owners, retail businessmen, manufacturers, etc.” Such alliances could study issues and develop solutions to problems, while also planning for the future.
In a letter, Gould later recalled the effect of reading this article: “It was wonderful to learn of a kindred soul willing to go public in opposition to the destruction of the countryside’s aesthetic qualities;…equally important was the need to foster harmonious economic development.” The Chases and the Goulds met, found much in common, and began working toward the formation of the CCCD. Sherret and his wife, Kenny (short for Catherine), had been living in the Midwest corn belt. They moved full-time to the family’s land in Ashokan in 1987.
Kenny, described by a fellow CCCD member as “effervescent,” was an enthusiastic supporter of the Center. “Kenny had a knack for knowing people and drawing the best out of them,” Sherret recalled. “Once we were late getting to a party. There were about 12 people in the room, and the hostess introduced us to all of them. Then she went into the kitchen. Another couple arrived late, and Kenny took them by the hand and introduced them to all the people she’d just been introduced to.”
Sherret cites a long list of people who contributed to success of the Center, the most familiar being historian Alf Evers, fly fisherman Art Flick, forestry expert Michael Kudish, and financier Armand Erpf, whose name is borne by the Center’s Arkville headquarters, the Erpf House. An early participant was Ruth Reynolds, who served as clerk, organizing many meetings and conferences. When interviewing Reynolds for the role, Sherret discovered “this modest ‘rural housewife’ had been a service pilot during World War II, flying planes to Alaska, to be transferred there to Russian pilots. The Center holds a tremendous debt to Ruth. She held us together.”
In the early days, the CCCD was run by its members, with decisions made at forums along the lines of New England town meetings. The members discussed issues and voted on recommendations to the executive committee and board of directors for action. Reports were brought to meetings by the heads of ten committees on such topics as the ski industry, planning and zoning, farming, and forestry. The weakness, as Sherret recalls, was that all the members were volunteers, so it was often difficult to follow through on actions undertaken.
In 1972, when the CCCD was seeking funding to solidify its operations, help came from former federal prosecutor John Adams, who two years earlier had cofounded the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the nation’s first environmental advocacy group. Adams, from the Sullivan County town of Roscoe, was impressed with the Center’s initiatives and provided a list of foundations to approach. While setting up appointments for Sherret to visit the organizations, Kenny established a rapport with the Kaplan Foundation director Ray Rubinow, leading to financial support of both the Center and the NRDC. The CCCD was able to hire an executive director and staff who continue to guide the organization with the support of membership.
Among the accomplishments of the CCCD over the years, Sherret cited the establishment of the Hanford Mills Museum in East Meredith, featuring an authentic water- and steam-powered sawmill. One of Sherret’s ideas was a forestry group that would help forest owners achieve their goals. The Catskill Forest Association now has several hundred members and holds a forest festival each July.
When the Thomas Cole House in Catskill was in decline, the CCCD helped keep the museum open to the public, despite funding cutbacks of the Reagan years. “Cole was not only a painter but a fine conservationist,” noted Sherret. “The Center was involved for 17 years, holding it together till the county could take over and preserve it.”
The CCCD similarly kept alive the idea of the Catskill Interpretive Center (CIC), which lost momentum for almost 30 years when funding dried up. Sherret, along with CCCD member Jim Infante, pushed to revive the project three years ago. The CIC opened in Mount Tremper in 2015 and was named after former Congressman Maurice D. Hinchey, who recently passed away.
“My connection with Maurice Hinchey was very close,” said Sherret. “Before he first ran for office, he came up here and we talked about the Catskills. We were parallel in a lot of our thinking. I had a high regard for him.”
“Maurice was such a forward thinker,” added Helen. “He secured the money for the Interpretive Center, and we were able to hold onto it until we could actually move ahead and get the facility going. He was a very important part of that process.”
Over the years, the CCCD has maintained a good relationship with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), despite the controversies that arise over the city’s control of the Ashokan Reservoir. “When we disagree with them, we let them know,” said Sherret.
In recent years, the city has bought up more land in the region, which Sherret considers beneficial from a conservation point of view, but he feels lands adjacent to the state forest preserve should be transferred to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He is pleased that “the city seems to have woken to the realization that the public and the land in the Catskills are important to them, and they had better make friends rather than enemies. Both the city and the DEC have had public relations problems in the Catskills. It’s getting somewhat better. Local people resent the ‘foreigners.’ But a lot of income comes from tourists.”
One role the Center has taken is to support sound development and oppose development that members considered detrimental. When the Belleayre Resort Project was first proposed, the CCCD took the position that it was too large. Asked how he feels about the proposal now that it has been reduced in size, Sherret sighed. “They’ll build it, and we’ll live with it,” he said.
When Ulster County was grappling with the Catskill Mountain Railroad over building a rail trail, Sherret suggested the county construct a walking and biking trail along the south side of the reservoir, instead of using the rail corridor on the north side. He mapped out in detail the course the trail could take, much of it along the dikes, and circulated his proposal to county legislators. “They had no interest whatsoever,” said Sherret. “It would have had extraordinary views of the mountains, and the tracks would have been preserved. I’m not overly impressed with the views from the north side.”
A result of the CCCD’s advocacy has been the annual Catskill Park Awareness Day, when representatives of local organizations go to Albany and talk to legislators about measures that would benefit the Catskills. Helen attends on behalf of the CCCD and other groups. “I have my finger in several pies,” she said. “Scenic Byway, Town of Olive, the forest preserve. We now have a line item in the state budget specific to the Catskills that groups can utilize it as we need it, so we can count on a certain amount of money to spend in the region.”
Sherret Chase’s legacy will clearly persist.
Editor’s note: Several items from last week’s interview bear correcting. Sherret set up training programs for the crews of B-32’s, not B-52’s. He taught at Iowa State University in Ames, not the University of Iowa. His family’s land was purchased from Angelina Winchell, not Angelita Winchell.