State Budget zeros out Catskill Park funds

fire-tower-SQAn effort begun in 2013 by the Catskill Park Coalition to enact a broad, long term campaign to advocate for increased funding for the Park that, in 2015 secured a historic line item in the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) for the Catskills Park and Forest Preserve. But $0 was actually funneled into the account.

Jeff Senterman, executive director, Catskill Center, and Ramsay Adams, executive director, Catskill Mountainkeeper, are Co-Chairs of the Catskill Park Coalition.

This year, on February 9, nearly 30 organizations and over 50 volunteers took part in 2016 Catskill Park Awareness Day, again traveling to Albany to meet with regional legislators and to represent the interests of the Coalition. They requested that a $4 million line item be created in the EPF for the Park and also requested funding in the NYS 2016-2017 Budget under the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYS DEC) Aid to Localities budget. Though $1.5 million in Aid to Localities was re-appropriated from previous years, the EPF allocation for the Park remained at $0.

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“The Aid to Localities funding wasn’t spent last year because it lacked a clear mechanism for it. Now the language has been clarified,” says Senterman. About $500,000 is dedicated to comprehensive recreational planning around a series of access points for parking lots, camping and trails. The remaining nearly $1 million is earmarked for capital projects at the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Park Interpretative Center on Rt. 28 in Mount Tremper. “The NYS DEC will build the buildings and the Catskill Center will manage them,” he adds. Potential projects include installation of a fire tower, a covered pavilion for picnics and events, and a cabin for the fire tower that will also function as a ranger museum.

“We’re happy that some funding has been directed to the Catskills, but it’s a big disappointment that the money we requested for the EPF line was not allocated,” says Senterman, adding, “I was there for another awareness day a week after Catskill Park Awareness Day, and our Coalition really did make an impression on our representatives. We’re making steady progress, and this is a step in the right direction. The Coalition (approach) works and we just have to keep doing it.”

“The reality is that it’s a broken system,” avers Adams. “Common sense says the Catskill Park should be publicly funded — a dedicated system of funding at a bare minimum, and then special things as they come up. We got really close this year with the dedicated budget line under the EPF.”

“The Catskill Park is a special, unique place,” says Adams. “It’s a DEC State Park, a watershed, a Blue Line, and it’s comprised of public and private lands together. And yet, it’s been ignored, again, during the New York State budget process. That’s why we need to get more people engaged. It’s our money, and people need to demand its investment in public resources, particularly unique ones like Catskill Park.”

He points to other resources that have been funded.

“The Hudson River and Adirondacks regions have very successfully lobbied for funding for their beautiful and important resources,” Adams adds. “We’ve haven’t advocated as well yet. We’ve been a little bit naïve about how it all works.” He points out that in meetings with representatives from both Senate and Assembly and both sides of the aisle, there’s agreement about, and support for, dedicated funding for the Catskill Park.

“But once the budget negotiations go behind closed doors, we wake up the next morning and it’s gone. The best explanation I can offer is that the Catskills are not perceived as special, although a number of the most important messages were heard. We’re not trying to take money away from anybody else. We requested $10 million be put into the EPF stewardship line — they put in $4 million, which is not a lot of money.” And the final budget, when approved, took that budget line down to $0. Again.

“The Park desperately needs infrastructure like trail heads and parking lots. It’s a huge place and it’s been neglected for a long time,” says Adams. “The good news is that we’ve heard from the Governor’s office and from NYS DEC Commissioner Seggos that they are committed to piecing together funds for the Catskill Park. The message is ‘we heard you, we’re working to do this’.” He anticipates that progress will be made over the next few months as the budget negotiations dust settles.

That’s why the members of the Catskill Coalition say citizens need to keep the pressure on. “We have to stand up for the Catskill Park. It should go without saying that the DEC and the Commissioner are really good people, but the system is broken. We’ve got to stand up and be heard. If we don’t, we’ll continue to be ignored,” says Adams.

Volunteers are being solicited and can contact Erik Johanson at the Catskill Center (ejohanson@catskillcenter.org). “Meetings are held regularly throughout the year to craft details, and there are ample opportunities to get involved. More people will make a bigger difference. We are working to build better relationships with metropolitan representatives, and it’s especially helpful to have volunteers from that area,” says Senterman. “This year, we met with all the metropolitan representatives to ensure that they hear from us. We are home to the majority, if not all, of their water supply.”

“People who use the Park should enjoy the opportunity to become champions of it. Get involved,” says Adams. “Get in touch with your elected officials. The more voices they hear, the better. That’s the democratic process.”