The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn more people outdoors, often into areas officials say were already overused. Now, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation has created a strategic planning initiative to manage the Catskill Park.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos says it’s great that more New Yorkers are getting outside and exploring the Catskill Forest Preserve, but it’s important to ensure that the uptick in visitors does not negatively impact the region’s natural resources or quality of life. He says Governor Andrew Cuomo has assembled a team of people from different sectors who will work to strike a balance among different interests. Executive Director of the Catskill Center Jeff Senterman is one of the members of the Catskills Strategic Planning Advisory Group. He says the use of the Catskill Park has increased over the past several years, but he did not expect to see such a high level of use this year, even with the pandemic.
“Now is the time to start talking about and actually putting solutions on the ground. We’ve had some experience in some hot-spot areas, like the Peekamoose Blue Hole, where we have a permit system, and we’re working with the state with our steward program on the ground. Also, Kaaterskill Falls, we’ve had folks there on the ground working with the state,” Senterman says. “So I think we have, in some cases, examples of actively managing use where it has at least been somewhat successful, and then we have lots of examples of areas that are just seeing levels of use that they hadn’t seen and now we have to come up with solutions to both allow for access but also allow for the protection of the natural resources and the experience of those people coming to utilize those areas.”
Peekamoose Blue Hole in Ulster County and Kaaterskill Clove in Greene County experienced overuse and trash dumping over the summer, prompting DEC to issue a public service announcement about “Leave No Trace” principles. Local officials also implemented parking regulations as they saw record crowds, unsafe driving conditions and illegal parking. Some parking lots were closed because of COVID. The advisory group will issue policy recommendations. Senterman believes educating visitors is key, so they are prepared to be in the forest preserve.
“Thinking about active measures to move people around the park, such as shuttles or just ways to manage use in the par,” says Senterman. "Looking at parking — we have a lot of undersized parking areas, which were even undersized prior to the increase in use, so building the resources of the park in a way that meet the needs of the people coming here, building on the success of the Catskills Visitor Center and really just looking at new ways that we can work in the Catskill Park thinking like it’s a park.”
He’d like to see more active management of the park overall. Lisa Lyons is part of the advisory group and wants to see the following addressed:
“The balance between protecting precious places, having people get to meet them and enjoy them so that they care about them, and having a healthy economy here,” says Lyons.
Lyons, who has experience in government and nonprofit work, owns Morgan Outdoors in Livingston Manor, in Sullivan County.
“It’ll take a while to figure out all the parts that need to work together to improve the overall picture,” Lyons says.
Other group members include local elected officials and stakeholders in tourism, recreation, natural resource protection and other priority areas. Groups represented include Catskill Mountainkeeper, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference and Latino Outdoors, which runs group outings. Senterman says the advisory group is diverse, but he would have liked to have seen more representation from those coming to the Catskills for recreation.
“The diversity of people that are coming to visit the Catskills in terms of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are much more diverse than the stakeholder groups that are present in the Catskills,” says Senterman. “And so I was really looking for as broad of a diversity of thought and experience as possible on this advisory group to ensure that all viewpoints and all experiences are represented in terms of how we manage the park in the future, because we don’t want to exclude anyone. We obviously want to manage the park to protect the natural resources and maximize public access, but also maximize the ability to include as many people as possible who want to enjoy the park and not exclude anybody in that process.”
Governor Cuomo’s 2020 State of the State proposals directed the DEC to develop a framework to balance public use needs in the Catskills. Similar to the Adirondack High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group launched in 2019, DEC will facilitate the Catskills Strategic Planning Advisory Group.
The Catskills Advisory Group will be charged with submitting a planning framework to Commissioner Seggos by the end of 2021. Upon completion of the framework, DEC will release a draft Strategic Plan for Managing Public Use in the Catskill Park Region for public review and comment.