By the end of the 19th century, when the tanning industry had clear-cut hemlocks from Catskills forests, and abandoned farms left big expanses of pasture, there were no wild turkeys in the mountains, and deer had nearly disappeared. Runoff from bare mountain slopes and pollution of creeks by the sludge from the tanneries, combined with over-fishing, had driven the remaining Esopus Creek trout high into the headwaters.
In the 1920s, when the Phoenicia Fish and Game Association was formed, followed by the Upper Esopus Rod and Gun Club and Stony Clove Rod and Gun Club, one of their goals was conservation and restoration of the land. On Saturday, April 28, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the Phoenicia Library will present “Sporting Clubs, Saviors of our Catskill Rivers,” by Austin “Mac” Francis, author of Catskill Rivers and Land of Little Rivers, and Bethia Waterman, co-founder of the Jerry Bartlett Memorial Angling Collection and administrator of the library’s Angling Parlor.
While issues such as gun control, the proposed Belleayre Resort project, and the Ashokan Rail Trail tend to polarize local residents, it’s instructive to be reminded that people on both sides of these controversies have always had a love of the land and nature as their primary motivation. In the bylaws of the Upper Esopus club, one of their purposes was “to promote protection of woods, waters, and wildlife.” The clubs stocked the woods with game birds and the streams with fish — over 177,000 fish in 1952 alone — and they fought legal battles to restore health to the creeks.
In the 1970s, the Phoenicia club joined Catskill Waters, an organization formed to protest the lack of regulation over the release of water from the Schoharie Reservoir, through the Shandaken tunnel and into the Esopus Creek, aimed at maintaining levels in the Ashokan Reservoir, part of New York City’s drinking water system. New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was opening and closing the portal according to the needs of the reservoirs, creating a rapidly fluctuating environment on the Esopus. Excessive water flow, which drove the fish into hiding, was followed by complete stoppage of water that left the fish stranded and dying along the banks.
In 1976, Chuck Schwartz, president of the Phoenicia club, wrote to then state assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, “I have personally rescued over a hundred wild fingerling brown and rainbow trout along with various minnows, crawfish and insect larvae. Other trout and their food were not so fortunate and were left to dry out and die in the afternoon sun…These trout were wild, and consider the tremendous amount of insect life which support these trout that were also destroyed. This food cannot be replaced and it may take years to rebuild.”
After seven years of pressure, the New York State legislature passed regulations that required DEP to moderate the release of water through the Shandaken portal, preventing the intense fluctuations that were so devastating to the fish. DEP fought the changes, but the legislation spearheaded by Catskill Waters opened the way for regulation at other reservoirs in the city water system.
One response to the degradation of the environment in the 1800s was the purchase of tracts of land by wealthy individuals. Conflict erupted between landowners and local people who no longer had access to the land they had hunted and fished for generations. When gamekeepers caught poachers on property owned by Clarence Roof in Neversink — where the Frost Valley YMCA camp is now located — sympathetic juries refused to convict the hunters. At least one trial was taken out of town, resulting in a $70 fine for the poachers. “We think that was the start of posting property,” said Waterman.
However, the wealthy landowners also formed private sporting clubs that have contributed to the preservation of rivers. The Anglers Club of New York, created in 1906, has a conservation committee. “Most of the private clubs own water,” said Francis, who described how Ed Van Put of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approached private landowners on the Lower Beaverkill and other streams. “He persuaded them to sell access to the water so there could be fishing on it by anyone, as long as they obeyed rules. All the clubs, whether public or private, do feel strongly about preserving the pristineness, the sanctity, the heritage they’re part of.”