Here in the Catskills, where the economy is largely based on tourism, we live in a constant tension between welcoming visitors and keeping them from despoiling the rural beauty that attracts them in the first place. Nowhere has this dichotomy failed so miserably as in the case of Blue Hole, the Peekamoose area swimming hole that was listed in several online and print publications, resulting in up to 1800 visitors per weekend, booming music, smoking grills, and mountains of trash, disfiguring a once pristine streambank.
\After two years of effort on the part of government agencies to address the problem, with only moderate success, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is requiring, as of June 30, free visitor permits for weekends and holidays, available online. A new stewardship program was put in place a month ago by Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD), and Peekamoose Blue Hole Steward Coordinator Andy Mossey said trash is down virtually to zero.
“You might find a granola wrapper someone dropped accidentally,” he said, “but people are not leaving bags of trash.” Each weekend, a steward sits at a table at the head of the trail leading to Blue Hole and engages with nearly every person walking by, explaining how and why to behave respectfully in a beautiful, wild location. “Before even going to Blue Hole proper,” said Mossey, “they get information on why we’re there and how they can help.”
The risk of being loved to death
Blue Hole is located on the Rondout Creek in the Town of Denning, which instituted parking regulations and towaway zones in 2016 to try to control the number of visitors. The DEC and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) pitched in to clean up litter. Volunteer stewards from the Student Conservation Association patrolled the area, educating visitors. While helpful, the measures did not succeed in taking pressure off Blue Hole.
At the time, Mossey was working for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which had designated Blue Hole a hot spot. “The program recognizes areas in danger of being loved to death by recreation,” said Mossey, “and this was a high-impact area. We work with other nonprofits to identify problems and develop solutions. We put a ton of resources into this area.”
When the CCCD recently joined the effort, they advertised for a steward coordinator, and Mossey, who had come to the Catskills last summer to work on the problem, jumped at the chance. “The Catskill Center is a big stakeholder in the area,” he said. “They represent a community of people who live in the Catskills who they can call on when they need help. They got the right people involved.”
The stewards of the past two years were interns with a limited amount of time on the ground. “They reached maybe one-fourth of the people,” Mossey said. “Now we’re speaking to 90 percent of the visitors going in. People are realizing it’s a drinking water source, since the Rondout Creek feeds into the Rondout Reservoir,” which in turn supplies water to New York City, home of many of those sojourning at the swimming hole.
How to get a Blue Hole permit
Following an open feedback period, DEC set up a system that allows the public to apply online for a free permit to visit Blue Hole. People can fill out the form at https://www.reserveamerica.com and must bring a copy of the permit, with ID, on their trip. A permit is good for up to six people on a specific date. Forty permits are available for each Saturday, Sunday, or holiday. Once a permit is booked, another is not available to that applicant for seven days. No permit is required on weekdays.
DEC prohibits boom boxes, glass bottles, cooking grills, littering, and parking near the site. Forest rangers, environmental conservation offices, and state troopers are on hand, checking permits as soon as people park.
As for the cost of the new measures, the stewardship program is funded by DEC, the Rondout Neversink Stream Program, and the DEP, with its interest in preserving the purity of the New York City watershed. The permit system incurs cost for the DEC, but individuals don’t have to spend money to book a permit.
“Before 2014, “ said Mossey, “Blue Hole got only about 50 visitors per weekend. It went up to 300 to 1800 in one weekend. This way, it’ll be at most 240 people per day. Any more, and we’re starting to damage the resource. If it’s less, we’re not offering public land to people who really want to use it. If we don’t manage it properly, it won’t be here for the next generation.”
Mess at Big Deep and Little Deep
Also from the “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” Desk: The following was posted by the Town of Woodstock on Facebook about the necessity of its Maintenance Department cleaning up at two other popular swimming holes, Big Deep and Little Deep.
“Piles of garbage, garbage strewn about, camp fires, and shrines. While a permitting system to use this town owned property has been put on hold due to State regulations, we are certain that people who are irresponsible in the use of this land most likely wouldn’t concern themselves enough to get a permit. The last thing the town wants to do is restrict access to Big and Little Deep. However, this misuse of the property is disheartening, and more importantly dangerous when it comes to campfires. Shrines on town property are forbidden and have been taken down. Campfires are forbidden. We shouldn’t have to explain that one. Be responsible and carry in/carry out. If the property continues to be misused in this way then the town will have no recourse but to close the property to public access.”