The state of the Catskills

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The keynote speaker told the fourth biennial conference of the Catskill Environmental Research and Monitoring (CERM 2016) last Thursday morning that he regards the creation of the state Catskills forest preserve in 1888 as the beginning of “what must be one of the longest experiments in natural recovery and restoration ecology” in the world. In terms of most mammals, forest health and many other aspects of the natural environment, “Things were not great when they established the forest preserve,” he said. “They’re a lot better now.”

Though the results of these efforts have been successful in many ways, the ecological health of the region faces very significant threats from such things as climate change, invasive species and acid deposition. “I don’t know what the world will look like in 30 years,” confessed Josh Ginsberg, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook and a part-time Woodstock resident for significant portions of his life.

One thing that’s different is that a new industry is born. There are now a large number of environmental researchers running around Catskills forests and streams, and mirabile dictu, they even talk to each other and work together. In his opening remarks to the conference, Paul Rush, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) deputy commissioner, said that research was “the DNA of DEP.” And his statement that “partnership leads to the best decision-making” wasn’t met with the guffaws from the audience that it might have a couple of decades ago.

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DEP, the prime financial sponsor of the CERM conference, has been increasingly connected to various local authorities and to the regional research world. With the shadow of many billions of dollars that filtration of New York City’s water supply would require cast on DEP, that number’s only likely to increase.

Noting “the alphabet of acronyms” the conference had gathered, Kathy Moser of the state DEC mentioned her agency’s “creative tension” between natural and human concerns. She assured the attendees that her agency was increasingly thinking at a regional level. “The governor listens to you,” she told the researchers. “You’re having an influence on state policy.”

The Belleayre conference had more than a hundred attendees. An online regional data directory is being assembled to improve communication among researchers. Distributed at the conference was a booklet describing 38 projects.

There Ginsberg wasn’t able to find much research on the ecology of the Catskills when the forest preserve was founded in 1885. The extractive industries that produced timber and stone for export had denuded and polluted the region so much that many owners walked away from the land because it wasn’t worth enough for them to pay their taxes. Almost all these industries have now disappeared, and the habitat for both man and beast experienced a gradual recovery. The ecological conditions of the streams improved, too.

Ginsberg detailed the recovery of animal life in the Catskills. As a wildlife conservationist, he is sensitive to human encroachment on animal life. He spoke of the necessity of maintaining migration channels and pipelines connecting pockets of creatures. Furthering habitat recovery will help restore animal populations.

With DEC holdings and land purchases by DEP, about 47 percent of land in the Catskills forest preserve is under public ownership. This does not include land ownership outside the preserve or land protected by easements. The other 53 percent, or 381,070 acres, within the Catskills blue line remains in private hands.

Ginsberg’s view is unequivocal. “I think [protected] private land is great,” he said. “I think public land is better.” Destroying environment, whether purposefully or not, can lead to unintended negative consequences. “I worry about if you destroy it, it takes 100 to 200 years to recover,” he said.

One mission of the Cary Institute which Ginsberg heads is to provide decision-makers with the facts they need to form their opinions. “We do science that helps define the problem and then find solutions to those problems,” Ginsberg said recently. New York City makes a great paying customer for data. Because of what is at stake for it, DEP has often become the lead agency when it comes to funding scientific investigations of the regional ecosystem.

The New York City environmental protection agency calculates that it also employs almost a thousand professional employees upstate (“… including almost a thousand scientists, engineers, surveyors, watershed maintainers and other professionals…”), many in Ulster County, where it maintains its regional headquarters on Smith Avenue in Kingston. DEP claims a $70-million payroll and annual tax payments of $157 million in upstate counties. By local standards, it spends liberally on capital projects. In recent years, the replacement of bridges and repair of roads in the vicinity of the Ashokan Reservoir has cost DEP tens of millions of dollars annually, for instance.

Of the 38 studies that made it into the abstract book distributed at the CERM conference last Thursday, half were submitted by academics from New York State colleges, seven from DEP, three from Cary, and the rest by researchers from a variety of government agencies, NGOs, engineering services and private individuals. These are the pioneers of environmental research and monitoring in the Catskills.

Full disclosure: Josh Ginsberg has been a close family friend of this journalist for about four and a half decades. 

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