Coalition heads to Albany to lobby for Catskills funding

Catskill Park advocates are headed to Albany on Tuesday to lobby for more funding for tourism and recreation in the park. Above: The Catskill Interpretive Center in Mt. Tremper, a visitor center run by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. Photo by NYC DEP.

The Catskill Park will have its day in Albany on Tuesday, Feb. 7, when local advocates descend on the state legislature to lobby for tourism and recreation funding for the region.

Unlike its larger cousin, the Adirondack Park, the 700,000-acre Catskill Park has no dedicated line item in the state budget, despite several years’ worth of efforts by local advocates and elected officials to secure one. The Catskill Park Coalition (CPC), a group of local nonprofits, is hoping to bring renewed attention to the park by participating in a “Catskill Park Awareness Day” to lobby state legislators. The group’s goal is to establish an annual $10 million “Catskills package” in the state budget.

The coalition, whose members include environmental, recreation, arts and community nonprofits, is seeking funds to support stewardship of the park and staffing at the Catskill Interpretive Center, fund a Cornell University project to protect hemlocks from invasive insects, fund tourism promotion, increase state Department of Environmental Conservation funding and staffing, and conduct a comprehensive economic study of the Catskill Park. Coalition members laid out their funding priorities in a statement issued last week.

One item notably absent from the CPC’s proposed Catskills package: Funding for the Belleayre Ski Resort, a state-owned ski resort that is run by the quasi-public Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) and funded by the state.

Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Jeff Senterman of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development told the Watershed Post that the CPC is aiming big in their proposals, but stressed that the goal is to get park funding “to a point where it can handle the use it's been getting.”

Although the CPC was unsuccessful in its $10 million push last year, Senterman said $900,000 in funding for the Catskill Interpretive Center was secured through Senator Seward’s office.

Senterman said that while the CPC is in regular contact with local officials, the upcoming Catskills Park Awareness Day is the coalition's best opportunity to advocate for the needs of the region to legislators across the state. The event will be an all-day affair, with volunteers speaking with more than 50 legislators.

No agreement on Belleayre

While the Coalition seeks Catskill Park funding, another high-profile Catskills effort to include local funding in the state budget is underway: the push to fund improvements at the Belleayre Ski Center. Upgrades to Belleayre’s state-owned facilities were called for in a Unit Management Plan approved by the DEC in 2015, but have not yet been funded by the state.

At a recent visit to Plattsburgh, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $20 million in funding for ORDA’s Gore and Whiteface ski resorts, but did not mention Belleayre, causing an uproar among ski center supporters and the local business community. A petition started by Friends of Belleayre Mountain, requesting aid for Belleayre in the state budget, has gathered more than 1,000 signatures since it was posted on Jan. 31.

When asked for the CPC’s position on funding for Belleayre, Senterman told the Watershed Post that the coalition members had not come to an agreement on the issue.

“Our priorities are ones that can be supported by all of the diverse members of the coalition and in this case we have not yet been able to reach a consensus on the issue before Catskill Park Awareness Day,” Senterman said in a statement. “I am sure that there will be spirited discussion moving ahead within the coalition on this issue.”

Although the coalition has taken a stance of neutrality on Belleayre, Senterman said that as executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, he is in favor of Belleayre receiving funding to improve their facilities.

Senterman's organization is one of five whose representatives are tasked with steering the Coalition. Another group represented on the steering committee, the Catskill Heritage Alliance, has long opposed the construction of the planned Belleayre Resort project adjacent to the ski center, and has filed multiple lawsuits in an effort to halt or downsize the project.

The other three groups represented on the CPC’s steering committee are Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Catskill Mountain Club. 

Local legislators support permanent funding of Catskills

State assemblyman Pete Lopez is a strong advocate for the CPC’s goal of a permanent line item in the budget. Lopez believes additional help is needed for the Catskills to offset limitations placed on the region as a result of state and New York City watershed environmental regulations.

Lopez said that increased state investment in the Catskills is necessary as the region struggles with regulatory red tape and rural poverty. “I’m looking for ways to lock this into the budget,” he said.

State Senator Jim Seward holds a similar frame of mind. In a statement to the Watershed Post, Seward wrote, “While it is extremely early in the budget process to be discussing specific dollar amounts, I am committed to establishing a dedicated state budget line item to ensure the Catskill Park is able to reach its full potential. The Catskill Park is a tremendous state resource and merits ongoing state support.”

Seward has also expressed support for increased funding for the Belleayre Ski Center. In a statement issued after Cuomo’s announcement of funding for Gore and Whiteface, he said that the governor “seems to have forgotten about Belleayre,” and that the ski center was “deserving of added state attention.” 

Correction, 2/6: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the Catskill Park. It is 700,000 acres, not 450,000 acres.