Land acquisition: A future for the Catskills?

For the nine million people who drink New York City water, the city buying a few thousand acres of upstate land each year hardly registers as news. But in the towns whose fields and forests make up New York City's million-acre Catskill/Delaware watershed, there is scarcely an issue as politically charged as that of land acquisition.

Under the terms of a permit granted by the federal EPA, which allows New York to drink unfiltered water, the city must perpetually buy land around its six west-of-Hudson reservoirs to protect the quality of their water. Each year, the watershed towns cede a little more ground to the region's largest landholder -- ground that's lost to potential development, since the city will never sell or build on the land.

For many Catskills locals, land acquisition evokes the still-fresh memory of another, more rapacious era of city expansion: the building of the reservoirs, in which whole towns were taken by eminent domain, over the protests of unwilling landowners.

With the above in mind, we recommend reading today's letter to the editor in the Daily Freeman, in which Andes resident Jack McShane -- who sits on the board of directors of the Catskill Landowners Association, a group that has sought to tread a landowner-focused middle ground on hot-button issues like gas drilling and land acquisition -- lays out a case for mutually-beneficial coexistence.

[Land acquisition] has been a very contentious issue in the watershed, as many feel that it will severely limit economic growth that is based on continued development. This is a valid argument if development is looked upon as the only way to keep our economy viable, but I feel there are other ways.

As a conservationist and one who not only enjoys the natural world, but respects and understands the many benefits that open space delivers, I disagree with this perspective and feel that  watershed residents can – with cognition and appropriate use of what we have now and will have more of (open space) in the future – can use this rare and diminishing asset constructively to grow a thriving economy heavily based on eco-tourism and outdoor recreation.

McShane also touches on the latest development in the upstate-downstate tug-of-war over land acquisition -- the new agreement, hammered out last fall, between the DEP and watershed towns. We published an extensive analysis of the new program last November; here's an excerpt.

Taking advantage of a “Halley's comet” moment of influence, the Coalition of Watershed Towns has negotiated a new agreement with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection that will prevent the city from buying any more land within some watershed towns, give upstate residents access to resources on city lands, and create a brand-new tax scheme that aims to make sure the city pays a fair share of upstate taxes.