We applaud Senators Seward and Amedore for taking up our cause to build a modern 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 modern park.
We also wish to express deep gratitude towards Governor Cuomo for his support of a fully funded Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) budgeted at $300 million. We strongly urge the legislature to confirm this historic increase in the EPF.
The economy of the Catskill region is built on the natural beauty of its forever wild land. In order to further preserve and enhance this region’s economy we ask for an appropriate funding level of a recurring $4 million per year from the EPF. 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 parcels 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significance of a National Park just two hours from the largest population center in the country is held back by an outdated recreation plan, limited funding for public access to land, and urgent unmet needs of various stewardship programs.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 several years of inadequate funding, putting into risk the stature, value and viability of this spectacular public amenity.
With dedicated annual funding from the EPF and the Aid to Localities budgets 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 EPF and Aid to Localities increases will allow the Catskills to proactively and strategically plan for the future while appropriately managing this extraordinary resource.
Proposed Catskills Budget Package
Public Access $1,000,000
Parking lot improvement and creation
Connecting trails for villages and hamlets
Regional recreation plan
Mountain bike plans
Unit Management Plan updates
Consulting fees, capital improvements
Marketing and promotion
Public/private partnerships (CRISP, Summit Stewards)
Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center $500,000
Fire Tower $150,000
Solar Array $25,000
Electric vehicle charging stations, elec. upgrades $25,000
Grant program for regional small businesses $500,000
Grant program for enhanced smart growth opportunities $500,000
Distributed to regional municipalities
Building a Better, More Modern Catskill Park
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. Acquisitions 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 publically 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.
To add enhanced public access for essential parking lots as well as ADA-compliant access may require the limited acquisition of easements and small fee properties.
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.
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 as a whole. 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 an EPF line item 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) Governor Cuomo recently approved a 391-room casino and resort project. This and other projects can only accelerate the demand for public access and create new stewardship challenges for our public land.
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 EPF 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 Modern Park
In the current environment of tight competitive funding, these necessary and urgent initiatives are not being implemented rapidly enough. We propose a dedicated line be established within the EPF, to be funded from future EPF increases, beginning in fiscal year 2015-16. We project the annual needs for this fund at $4.5 million a year. 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 line item in the EPF be established for the Catskills. A line item insures that obsolete five-year recreation plans are no longer updated just once every few decades. A line item 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 line item 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 line item 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 $4 million dollar line item in the EPF begins to transform the park for the benefit of all.