If the Catskills seem busier lately, you're not imagining it. According to a new report, visits to the Catskills more than doubled between 2018 and 2021, when the region welcomed an estimated 12 million travelers––that's roughly equivalent to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, combined!
The ongoing deluge, it turns out, is the very reason for this report, prepared over two years by the Catskill Advisory Group, or CAG, and recently delivered the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Goals include: 1) balancing the increasing recreational use of the Park with 2) the continued protection and science-informed management of our natural resources while 3) ensuring the experience of using the Park is welcoming, accessible, and inclusive.
To get a handle on all this, we spoke with Jeff Senterman, executive director of the Catskill Center, and a member of the advisory group that authored the report.
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai
Brett Barry 0:03
If the Catskills seem busier lately, you're not imagining it. According to any report, visits to the Catskills more than doubled between 2018 and 2021 when the region welcomed an estimated 12 million travelers, that's roughly equivalent to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined. The ongoing daily use, it turns out, is the very reason for this report, prepared over two years by the Catskill Advisory Group, or CAG, and recently delivered to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, with proper management and a clear roadmap for the future of Catskill Park. Opportunities abound for balancing increased recreation, inclusive hospitality, and continued protection of our natural resources. To get a handle on all this, I spoke with Jeff Senterman, Executive Director of the Catskill Center, and a member of the advisory group that authored the report.
Jeff Senterman 1:02
I'm Jeff Senterman. I'm the Executive Director of the Catskill Center and the Catskill Center is an organization that's been working in the Catskills for many years on the preservation and protection of the natural resources and the communities of the Catskills.
Brett Barry 1:15
And what is the Catskill Advisory Group? When was it conceived? Why was it conceived and how was the Catskills Center or you individually involved with that?
Jeff Senterman 1:26
So for a number of years, the use across the Catskill Park has been increasing and there was a kind of regional call for a way to look at and address that increasing level of use and so Governor Cuomo at the time, directed the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, to establish this Catskill Advisory Group to study high use issues across the Catskill Park and ways to solve those...those challenges. The commissioner then went about establishing the group and inviting members; the Catskill Center was one of those members invited, and I sat on the group as the Catskill Center Representative. We had really a range of stakeholders, in addition to the Catskill Center, representing NGOs, representing towns, counties, businesses, kind of really across the spectrum. So that we had a wide variety of views, and a wide variety of experience coming to the table to talk about these. I think it's both an opportunity and a challenge of the increasing number of visitors coming to the Catskills.
Brett Barry 2:32
When you say, Commissioner, you mean, is that DEC?
Jeff Senterman 2:35
Yes, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation was ultimately the person who established the CAG, which is the the acronym for Catskills Advisory Group, and was the person that we as the group presented our final report to.
Brett Barry 2:51
How long were you meeting as a group and when was that report submitted?
Jeff Senterman 2:55
We've been meeting over two years, started early 2020, and by the end of 2020, we had released an interim report that kind of highlighted, where we expect it to go as we continue through our process, and then from that interim report, we continued our work, and then issued the final report, I guess now, just about a month ago, to the commissioner, who is reviewing the report, and then we'll be making recommendations for the implementation of those...those recommendations by the department.
Brett Barry 3:28
Who were some of the other stakeholders in the group and can you recount some of the varied concerns that they brought to the table?
Jeff Senterman 3:34
We had town supervisors; we had town board members, from those folks. I think we heard really, the challenges of the increasing use could be the parking challenges at Kaaterskill Falls, or just the number of visitors coming to the Blue Hole and causing traffic problems through the town there. In terms of tourism folks who were serving on the group, the conversation was kind of like how can they use their tools to appropriately educate folks before they got there and guide them to instead of going to those hotspots, how do we get them into main streets are to a place like the North South Lake Campground where there's facilities to support extra folks, organizations like the Catskill Center or Catskill Mountainkeeper. You know, I think we were looking at multiple opportunities and multiple challenges, sort of, again, sort of redirecting use. But also how do we protect natural resources because as much as we want everyone to come and enjoy the park, we also want to ensure that the park is ultimately protected and the...the main reason for the Catskill Park is the Catskill Forest Preserve, which is to be maintained in a forever wild status and just having so many people trying to use the same place or a couple of different places, really has led to natural resource degradation. Across the area, we really were trying to press DEC to think in a big way about how to manage the park in such a way that we can let people come and enjoy the park. But we can also protect the natural resources that are here.
Brett Barry 5:13
It seems like there's always been an ebb and flow to Catskills traffic and visitors. Is there more consistency or intensity now and what's been driving that?
Jeff Senterman 5:22
I don't have hard numbers to back it up. But you can look at like the trail logs from the sign in register booths across the Catskills, or you can, you can see it from businesses and such, probably for about the last 10 years, there's been a general increase in visitors to the Catskills and you're right. We've had those increases in the past, and then generally, you know, they'll start to fall off again, and then we will go back up. We seem to be in a sustained pattern of growth. The pandemic really kind of accelerated that, as more and more people discovered for the first time that there was a place like the Catskills with only a few hours away from New York City and so I think, unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, you know, the more folks that find us, they tell more folks that they found us, and then more folks come here and kind of the cycle continues on and on. I also think, you know, people will blame social media for heavy use and overuse. I'm sure that...that is, you know, that is an aspect of somebody posting a picture on Instagram and everybody wanting to go find that picture. But social media in general has just made people...I think more aware of everywhere, and so, you know, you can be a small b&b in the Catskills and have a social media presence and get people to come to you in a way that wasn't possible in the past, and so I think that, you know, whether it is people just being like, oh my gosh, I can...I can go to the mountains and I don't have to drive six hours, you know, to the far north or people just running into businesses and opportunities on social media. It's really led to a sustained growth in visitorship to the Catskills.
Brett Barry 7:09
And there's been these iconic spots that have gotten really hammered, as you said, like Peekamoose Blue Hole, and Kaaterskill Falls, and I guess those were really big on social media, which probably drew more crowds and things that no one had ever seen before. There's major crowds, people bringing in grills, and floatation devices and all kinds of stuff that you've never imagined in those spots. Are there other examples like that of really large impacts that have been seen in the park over the past couple of years?
Jeff Senterman 7:42
There are, you know, really any spot that's easily accessible, that offers either a water feature or a great view are places where folks want to go to so another up and coming probably up and coming as the wrong way to describe it because it (already)...it (already) is a hotspot is giant ledge, you know, it's a short walk, it's not a difficult hike, and it goes to one of the most spectacular views and all of the Catskills. Fifteen years ago, a busy day up there, you might have seen 20 cars in the parking lot and that parking lot there was able to handle that use. Today, on a blue sky Saturday or even not a blue sky Saturday, there could be 100-plus cars parked there. Another place where we've had challenges with increasing use are the trellis high peaks in the Catskills. So there's a few peaks that are part of the Catskill 3500, which are the highest peaks in the Catskills, where there were no trails and again, fifteen years ago, if you wanted to go and find the summit of that mountain, you needed to be good with your map and compass, highly unlikely that you would run into anybody along the way. Today, unfortunately, most of the routes, there are social trails, they're...they're also called herd paths. So people are traveling the same way up and down these mountains so often that just the foot traffic alone has had trails developed, and unfortunately, in some cases, they are traversing rare species habitats. So whether that's rare plants that are being trampled or perhaps impacting a species like the Bicknell's thrush, which is a bird that nests on our high summits. You know, there's...there's lots of potential for impacts and from the perspective of the Catskills Center, and from some other stakeholders on the...on the CAG. That was one of the real critical items was, you know, sort of this uncontrolled high use really has the potential to impact those natural resources, and so how do we go about ensuring that people can still enjoy those mountain peaks because we don't want to say to anybody, no, you can't climb that mountain...how could we do something that lets people get there but also protects either that rare plant or that, you know, the Bicknell's thrush that is nesting there?
Brett Barry 9:56
And were there any suggestions that came to mind to address issues like that?
Jeff Senterman 10:01
So the fancy term is called a visitor use management framework or a view MF. I don't like to use the word because it sounds like it's something really complicated. But it really what it is--is collecting data and then using that data to inform decisions about how to manage the area, that is not something that has been done very much in the Catskill Forest Preserve, and in the Catskill Park, so DEC has tended to be an agency that, you know, land is protected, trails might be put on there. But that there's not a lot of active management, so to speak. So if a trail is getting beat out, because too many people are using it, you know, they're not making decisions actively to either reduce the level of use or increase the structure of the trail to better handle that, and in the case of the trail is peaks. Because there was no infrastructure related to them, you know, there's no parking lots, there's no trails, they were totally out of sight, out of mind and what have you, MF says is...like start collecting that information. So you want to find out what's happening to your natural resources across the area that you're looking at? What are the user experiences that are happening? What are the user expectations? You know, am I expecting a complete wilderness experience when I climb this trails peak or am I expecting to run into other people or am I expecting there to be a trail, and I'm just not aware that there isn't a trail, and I think that the herd path, so to speak, is is a trail, put that all together with the rules and regulations and you know, sort of guiding principles of the area and make recommendations in the terms of the trails, peaks, it could be building trails, you know, putting trails in that avoid rare species habitat that aren't eroded, or, you know, whatever that might be. But in other cases, it might be reducing the availability of parking to reduce the number of people coming into an area and then actively managing that parking lot to ensure that if there's a 20-car parking lot, and more than 20 cars show up, they're not going to be allowed to park on the street, and that's really a change in philosophy for the Catskills and what this report has called for is really investing in that data collection. That analysis of the data and then following through with the recommendations that come out of that system, that will take person power, it'll take infrastructure, it'll take ongoing funding to kind of keep all of those things moving. But if we don't do that, we're gonna see a lot more Peekamoose Blue Holes and a lot more Kaaterskill Falls and a lot more giant ledges over time and natural resources will be degraded, user experience will be degraded, if you can't even get to the place that you want to go to, you know, I think we've all seen sort of the impacts of...of this higher use. And it's not just, I guess the story is that it's not just unique to us here in the Catskills. It's...it's a...it's a challenge everywhere, and this tool that we are recommending. The viewer map is a tool that was developed on the federal level to address natural resource protection and user experience at national parks and national forests. On Bureau of Land Management lands anywhere (that) there's the opportunity or the challenge of visitors wanting to see something and the land manager wanting to protect something, and so, you know, finding that balance along the way.
Brett Barry 13:33
Does the report call for staffing to help all that happen (to) in terms of directing people to less crowded places, or teaching them about...carry and carry out all the things that help preserve a space?
Jeff Senterman 13:48
All of the above. So the report calls for more staffing at the Department of Environmental Conservation, specifically in terms of the staff who are having to manage all those processes. So you need people to collect the data; you need people to analyze the data; you need people to run the public processes that are engaging the public in this visitor use management framework process, and then you need people to actually engage and do the management actions. So like you just said, if somebody needs to be their educated users, that's a staff person of some sort that needs to be at that site. Now, you know, there are certain functions that the department needs to do and we in the report make the recommendation that they do it. But there are also other functions such as that steward at a high use location educating visitors. Those programs already exist, and they're being run by partner organizations like the Catskill Center and Catskill Mountainkeeper. We're putting our seasonal staff at these high use locations, meeting, and greeting the public. We've been doing that since 2018. For us, we've been operating at the Peekamoose Blue Hole, Kaaterskill Falls...Platte Clove and (we've) also have a person who walks the Devil's Path hiking trail every summer, and since 2018, we've been able to say hello and offer information to over a quarter of a million visitors to the Catskill Park at those locations. So it's, you know, the department, environmental conservation doesn't have to do every single thing. But they have to be partnered with a lot of folks to be doing that work across the park. We know that sort of state budgets are not limitless, and as much as we may say, DEC, we need more staff. The governor is not going to add every single staff person that we want. But there are existing partnerships, and the CAG report calls for new partnerships that can really bridge that gap between what can the state provide in terms of person power, but also what can state funding provide when you're working with partners like the Catskill Center or Catskill Mountainkeeper or volunteer groups like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. A little bit can go a long way. I guess is the way to say it there.
Brett Barry 16:03
My conversation with Jeff Senterman continues in a moment. Kaatscast is proudly sponsored by Ulster Savings Bank. Stop in and meet the friendly staff at their Phoenicia and Woodstock locations. Call 866-440-0391 or visit them at ulstersavings.com. Member FDIC Equal Housing Lender. Thanks also to the Mountain Eagle. Covering Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Catskills are maybe unique because it's a park, but it's a patchwork of state lands, city lands, townships, private land. Does that complicate things or does that maybe open up more opportunities?
Jeff Senterman 16:59
I think it gives us an advantage in that, you know, when you're in a national park, everything is national park land. There are limitations on, I guess, how you can address challenges and follow up on opportunities. Here in the Catskills. Like you said, we have this mix of public and private land, New York State's Forest Preserve, it's protected by our state constitution. So (the) state lands within the Catskill Park are to remain forever wild, and so there's only a certain level of improvement that can be made to those. But because we have city lands, which have their own, you know, regulatory structure that the city allows or...or doesn't allow, but even more importantly, we have private lands within the park. There's lots of opportunities to get folks from, say, wanting to swim at some random swimming hole on the Forest Preserve to an improved place like the Belleayre Beach or North South Lake or Mongaup Pond. We have places like our major ski areas. In the wintertime, they're obviously very busy (with) skiing. In the summertime, those locations are not overly busy. But they have a ton of infrastructure. So if we could direct people who want to have a great walk with a great view, can you think of a place that might not be better for a family than to take a chairlift and take a short walk?They'll have bathrooms; they'll have parking. Being in this place where we are a mix of public and private, it just creates multiple opportunities. We can be greater than any one thing because we have so many different things here in the Catskills.
Brett Barry 18:31
And to distribute the crowd and help the region absorb it, I guess, more responsibility or intelligently.
Jeff Senterman 18:38
Absolutely. You know, I'm here in Tannersville and you can be here and Tannersville on a busy weekend. And it is, it can be insane. But I could drive over to the other side of the Catskill Park, in the western Catskills, and be the only one there, and the communities over there will not be necessarily as busy as Tannersville is here, and so how do we educate folks, and how do we direct folks to know. You know, yes, you came to see Kaaterskill Falls. But you've seen Kaaterskill Falls; now you can go see the rest of the park; however it may be for our stewards, one of the most often asked questions is...what else is there to do? So somebody has walked out and gone and seen Kaaterskill Falls; they come back and they say okay, now what? And if there isn't that person to tell them now what they don't know, and they'll jump in their car and they'll drive back home from wherever they came never. In the case of Kaaterskill Falls, never even realizing that the village of Tannersville was just over the rise and over the hill where they could have gotten lunch and stuff like that. So I think all of these different aspects of really engaging with the visitors trying to manage visitor expectations and visitor experience and really giving people tools to understand the place they're coming offers an opportunity to really spread us out, spread the wealth, so to speak in terms of economic opportunity for our communities, letting New Yorkers and anyone else who visits us like know why the Catskills are such a special place and should be protected.
Brett Barry 20:14
So the final report, can you give a sense of the breadth of that thing? How big is this report and how long is it going to take the DEC to...to process that information?
Jeff Senterman 20:25
It's a...it's a decent size report, we did try very hard not to kind of write for writing sake. One fact about the Catskills is that we have lots of reports. So this is not the first report out there that talks about how (can) the Catskill Park be better, and so we relied on...on some level of referring back to past efforts, and really the reason why those past efforts have not been implemented has always been a lack of funding. So there has been no lack of good thinking, and the Catskills, but there's always been a lack of follow-through in terms of funding and staffing, and our hope with this report, given that it was, you know, called for by the governor; it was organized by the commissioner of DEC. DEC was involved with all of the members of the CAG through the whole process. You know, even before the final report, they were well aware of...of what we were thinking about and going to be calling for. Through the development of the report and our recommendations, DEC stepped ahead of the ball. The creation of a Catskill Park coordinator staff person within the DEC happened before our final report came out, even though the final report still calls for that if it explains further sort of how we want to see that person and hopefully that office takes shape. So what I would say is...recommendations that were made in the final report are already being turned into opportunities within the forthcoming state budget. And advocates like the Catskill Center, Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Adirondack Mountain Club...others that advocate for state funding for the Catskills and for the Forest Preserve are already working to hold the agency's feet to the fire and hold the state's feet to the fire to say...look, we have a solution, we have this consensus report, we had people in the room that wouldn't normally all agree...all agree that these are ways that we can make the Catskill Park more resilient and more able to withstand, you know this...this increasing level of use and spread the benefits. But what we need from you is the support to make that happen, and so I know I personally am taking this report and running with it. This is the time of the year that I spend a lot of time either in Albany or on...on zooms with people in Albany. Nowadays, talking about why the Catskills are an important place and also talking about the Forest Preserve in general, and every single conversation I have starts with there's this thing called the CAG report and here are the general recommendations within it. We really need your support and what I would say is generally within the Department of Environmental Conservation within the governor's office and within the legislature, the two new environmental conservation committee chairs, both in the Senate and the Assembly, and with our members for our local delegation, both in the Senate and the Assembly, there's a real recognition of the need for the implementation of this report and the need for sustained long term funding. You know, we have programs like the Catskills Visitor Center, which already does receive some state level of funding, but that needs to be sustained and increased. We have a forest preserve line within the state budget, again, that needs to be protected and increased to recognize the investments that need to be made and just in general. When the Department of Environmental Conservation is thinking about staffing and thinking about moving programs forward. It really has to think about what is needed to be done, either in terms of its own staffing or in terms of its contractual work, to make these things happen.
Brett Barry 24:07
How much of this do you think is going to happen and what do you expect will come out of this report?
Jeff Senterman 24:13
I've been accused of being overly optimistic in the past, but I think that if you're not optimistic, and you're not going to get anywhere, so my general feeling is...there is a lot in this report that is common sense that has been called for in the past, but the level of increasing use that we're seeing hasn't turned it from, oh, wouldn't that be nice to...we have to do something and this report and the recommendations within the report really provide a clear road map. We have recommendations that can make a difference. We have a situation in the Catskill Park that is unsustainable if we do nothing. You know, there are some things in there that will take time, but there are a lot of things that if we hit the ground running this spring season going into our...our busy season can really start to make a difference and I know that the stakeholders, you know, places like...like me at the Catskill Center. Folks like the Catskills 3500 Club, individual towns, the counties that were represented, the Department of Environmental Conservation, we all want to address these challenges because we know...we can't keep doing business as usual, and so I think it comes down to doing the hard work this year, letting the governor know, you know, we have this. We need to fund it, letting the legislature know, we need this; we have to fund it. There has been a recognition by all of those folks that increasing levels of use in both the Adirondacks and the Catskills are unsustainable and have to be invested in, and we're just going to continue to push on that. But I really am optimistic and hopeful that, you know, within a few years, we will see the Catskill Park will be just as wonderful. But there will be changes to the way we enjoy some places, you know, whether that is changes in how we park changes in sort of who we run into when we visit spots, technology about how we learn about whether places are busy or not. Whatever that might be, I really do think that those things will start to happen. Because they have to happen.
Brett Barry 26:24
Is the report publicly available or...
Jeff Senterman 26:27
It is. It's been released on the DEC website and the members of the CAG will also be doing over the winter outreach to the public and to our communities across the Catskills because one of the items that we did commit to in the report was a better process for disseminating this report and future reports like this. One thing that we've all committed to as CAG members is to continue the work that we were doing by either sit-downs or educational opportunities, but really taking the time to explain to everybody what's in this report, how it impacts them in their sphere of influence, and how they can, you know, help get it implemented in the end.
Brett Barry 27:13
Thank you so much, Jeff. I appreciate it.
Jeff Senterman 27:15
Brett Barry 27:17
Implementation of CAG recommendations, hinges largely on appropriations in the state budget, which is finalized at the end of March. If you'd like to read the report, there's a link to it in the show notes. Kaatscast is a biweekly production of Silver Hollow Audio. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss a show and please give us a rating while you're there. Visit kaatscast.com where you can hear all our shows or join our listeners supporters like Ricarda, Gerald and Helen by making a monthly contribution. Thank you. Thanks also to the 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway; following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries, and links to area restaurants, shops, and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. I'm Brett Barry, thanks for listening, and we'll see you again in two weeks.