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Catskill Park Awareness Day 2017
February 7, 2017 @ 9:00 am - 4:00 pm
Catskill Park Awareness Day
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7TH, 2017
NEW YORK STATE CAPITOL
A Vision for the Catskill Park
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. 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.
Proposed Catskills Budget Package
Catskill Park Coalition Priorities 2017 – the Catskills Package – $10,000,000
Continue the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Aid to Localities line recurring annually at $500,000 for Catskill Park access improvements and $50,000 in annual recurring support for staffing and operations at Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center – $550,000
Additional Environmental Protection Fund Land Stewardship and New York Works funding towards stewardship activities in the Catskill Park – $4,000,000
Remove the cap on Line 3 of land stewardship money to allow for spending within the Catskill Park Forest Preserve
Fund Catskill Conservation Corps, Summit/Trail Stewards and Professional Trail Crews in the Catskills and increase stewardship efforts to match growth realized by regional tourism marketing and promotion
Develop a greater equity between stewardship funding at the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), which needs to result in more resources for the DEC to manage the Forest Preserve
Support the “Save the Hemlocks” project to reduce the impact of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid by developing effective biocontrol (laricobius negrinus) administered by Catskill Regional Invasive Species Partnership (CRISP)/Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) through Cornell University efforts – $2,000,000
Increased support for Catskill Area Tourism Services (CATS) to improve regional marketing efforts, direct visitors to the Catskill Interpretive Center as a welcoming center, and provide better connections between the Catskill Park and its communities – $2,000,000
Increase the budget and staffing for the DEC Lands and Forests Division and continue holding Forest Ranger academies to maintain and grow the Ranger force – $1,000,000
Comprehensive economic study for the Catskills building on prior Catskill Park Coalition study, acts as snapshot of before and after Sullivan County Casino development – $450,000
Building a Stronger 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 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.
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.
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.