The Catskills future is up to us
By Wes Gillingham
Make no mistake. The Catskills are the land of plenty. World-class fisheries, fertile soil, crisp clean air, majestic park land and the worlds cleanest municipal water supplies. These are invaluable assets that are ours to lose. We are at a crossroads now where our decisions will determine the future of the Catskills.
On the one hand, we have opportunities to bring economic growth to our area without destroying our environment and the unique qualities that make the Catskills what they are. One good example is the project that Catskill Mountainkeeper is facilitating to bring an institution of higher learning to Sullivan County. It would teach our young people new skills, make them more employable at higher wage levels and bring new jobs to the region. Another is a project that would help to reinvigorate our regions farming industry by setting up a model farm to teach new methods and upgrade skills so that local farmers can successfully appeal to the growing desire of millions to buy food closer to where it is produced. This is being done as a partnership between Catskill Mountainkeeper, NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) and others.
But on the other hand, there are some very serious threats to our land, air, water and way of life. These include the full-bore effort by the gas companies and their sponsors to bring gas drilling to our area. Their efforts have been fast tracked with the release of the New York States Department of Environmental Conservation Environmental Impact Study, which unfortunately is woefully inadequate, and if implemented could result in potentially devastating results. There is also an aggressive Federal push for off-shore casino operators to build multiple Las Vegas-style gambling casinos in the Catskills by changing the rules that currently make it illegal for Native American tribes to build casinos hundreds of miles away from their reservations. These would bring environmental, social and economic problems to the region. On top of this, there are large scale construction projects that have targeted our ridge-tops, which would destroy our view sheds that bring tourist dollars and exacerbate the erosion that invites a worsening of our already severe flooding problems.
The threats and opportunities are both very real and very great. Those that wish to benefit from exploiting the Catskills are very well organized and well resourced. Those who can help us develop constructive opportunities require encouragement and good partners. In order to take control of our own destiny, we will have to work together as a community, have clear vision, plan carefully and act decisively.
A critical step right now is to create a unified regional development plan to address the kind of development we need and want. This has been done successfully in other parts of the country. We dont want to look back in 20 years and lament the unnecessary destruction of our natural beauty and heritage, and the lost chances to promote sustainable development. We have to decide if we want to shape our future or if we are content to let external forces shape it for us.
The Catskills are a special, unique and irreplaceable place. Together we can plan for our future, retain our rural nature, wonderful vistas, open spaces, old growth forests and farmland and create expansion that provides working wage jobs, promotes skill development over the long term and stimulates growth at a rate that the region can absorb.
(Wes Gillingham is the program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper and a resident of Sullivan County.)