In light of Greene County’s recent economic development campaign, The Great Northern Catskills, bringing increased traffic to the Kaaterskill Clove, and the tragic deaths of two women who perished at the falls, the Town of Hunter Board moved swiftly to draw attention to the pressure created within the community and its finite resources. Some might say that the conditions were perfectly staged for disastrous results.
Starting with the economic downturn and a cultural shift to greater outdoor recreation, people from the urban centers of the state looking for day trips into the woods, once again, found the Catskill Mountains. Ad campaigns, newspaper articles and word of mouth brought people looking to cool off from the city heat only a two hour car ride into the mountain cloves. Here they find swimming holes, unparalleled scenic beauty and endless mountain trails.
Unfortunately, when The New York Times ran an article in the style section on July 26, 2013, entitled Heading Upstate in Search of a Watery Eden by Joshua Lyon, the Town Board was already in the throes of a population health threat. To add further insult to injury, Mr. Lyon failed to properly research the jurisdictional responsibilities shouldered by the Town of Hunter by naming Palenville, a hamlet in the Town of Catskill, as the source of the regions historical landmarks. If properly researched, Lyons would have found that the Town of Hunter was trying to mitigate a range of issues brought to the town due to the influx in population.
Sadly, given the limited ability to create infrastructure within the Catskill Forest Preserve to handle this new type of tourism, the Town Board reached out to all the proper authorities that had responsibility within the town limits. Faced with everything from parking issues, to human waste, to deteriorating trails, the Town Board proactively moved to protect public health. Despite having its hands bound due the unique restraints of having a protected forest preserve as a tax payer in the community, the Town Board persisted in its fight to find solutions to the looming problems created by this distinct relationship.
In search for answers, many questions came to the surface. How could a historically popular tourist destination be so inundated with problems, when in the past, greater numbers of people came here to play and relax? The answers are simple: control, infrastructure, accountability and economics.
In the past, the number of forest rangers covering the area was four, now there is one. This can be viewed as both an economic issue as well as a control issue. Yet, no matter which way you hang it, the essence of the problem is the Town of Hunter bares the responsibility of servicing the public when the state comes up short. To this end, the Town’s volunteer emergency personnel are stretched thin. As residents can attest, on any given week, and especially the weekends, when the fire whistle blows, it is most likely a call for rescue at “The Falls.”
Keeping in mind that public welfare is always an ongoing priority; residents can rest assured that some gains have been made to help alleviate the pressure on the firefighters, rescue workers, town leadership and other emergency management personnel. After countless meetings with local, county and state authorities, the state is starting to listen; however, there is still much work to be done. As the adage goes, if you scream loud enough, someone is bound to listen.
As a result of meeting with Commissioner Joseph Martens of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in addition to various other meetings with Commissioner Martens’ staff, several actions have taken place. Safety measures such as fencing has been erected at the upper and lower levels of Kaaterskill Falls. Furthermore, increased staffing at the Kaaterskill site to promote safety, funding for emergency personnel training, communication measures such as radio access into the cove, as well as regional communication among first responders are being implemented. Finally, a possible amendment to the Unit Management Plan (UMP) altering the sites designation will make room for other measures to be taken such as: increased signage, major trail improvements (possible stone stair case from the bottom) and a parking study.
While this does not address all the needs associated with the Town of Hunter and its unique relationship with the State of New York, more succinctly the DEC, progress is being made. As with any community, there are challenges to face, however, residents can feel confident that the leadership in the community carefully listens to the concerns of the public and works diligently to protect the health, safety and welfare of those who live and visit our community.
By Anthony Coiro