Working on Behalf of our Mountains
Catskill Center Eyes Its 50th Anniversary
By Jodi La Marco
The beauty of the Catskill Mountains has drawn visitors to the region for generations. From New York City residents eager to escape the summer heat to artists in search of inspiration, the area began gaining steam as a tourist destination in the early 1800s. Writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, among many, were enchanted by the mysterious blue mountains, and the wild landscape even spawned the first distinctly American art movement—the Hudson River School.
Though revered for its splendor and visited by many, the Catskills were also heavily exploited for logging, quarrying, and tanning industries. Eventually, as a means of preventing further destruction of the region’s natural resources, the Catskill Park was created.
“The Catskills were seen as the headwaters of many streams and as an area worth protecting,” explains Jeff Senterman, Executive Director of the Catskill Center. “Since then, the Catskill Park has evolved. It’s about 700,000 acres, and about half of that acreage is public land owned by the State of New York.” Most of the remainder, however, is privately owned. Although the region is and has been a getaway destination, it is also home to thousands of permanent residents. “The Catskill Park is unique in that it is a mix of both public and private land. Instead of having communities around the park like you have in most other places, the park is instead around the communities.”
Now in its 49th year, the Catskill Center strives to preserve and enhance the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of the Catskill region. “We have the dual mission of both conserving the Catskills and trying to ensure that our communities remain sustainable and remain viable,” says Senterman. “We don’t want the Catskills to become a museum. We want it to be a living, breathing place where there are amazing protected conservation areas but there are also vibrant, interesting, sustainable communities.”
With the Catskill Center’s broad mission comes a wide scope of programs and projects. Artist residencies and preservation efforts such as the Catskill Regional Invasive Species Partnership are just an inkling of the organization’s numerous efforts.
One longtime goal of the Catskill Center—namely, the creation of the region’s first official visitor center—was finally realized in 2015. Since the Catskill Park is spread out across both private and protected land, trailheads and attractions can be hard to find. “The Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center is really a place to learn about the history of the region and the opportunities that are out there—whether it’s hiking, biking, or skiing. It’s our job as the keepers of the Catskills to welcome these people and also give them the tools to have a safe and enjoyable experience that doesn’t harm the park that they’re coming to use,” notes Senterman. “It’s also a touchpoint for finding out what kinds of activities are happening in the communities of the Catskills. It takes our entire mission and puts it in one place. We’re sending them out to both enjoy the outdoor recreation opportunities and the communities that are in the Catskills.”
The informational displays inside the Interpretive Center will soon be getting revamped to better serve visitors. “I like to call it Interpretive Center 2.0.,” says Senterman. “For the last year, we’ve been working with a design firm from the city and designing a whole new interior and all new exhibits. We’re hoping to start constructing and installing sometime this summer.”
Another function of the Catskill Center is to advocate on behalf of the park and the communities it contains. “We actually just wrapped up our 6th annual Catskill Park Day in Albany on February 6th. The Catskill Center has always been a voice in Albany and in Washington for the protection of the Catskills and for resources for communities. Five years ago, we created the Catskill Park Coalition in conjunction with Catskill Mountainkeeper. It is a coalition of over 30 organizations that work in the Catskills. Every year, we develop a list of priorities that of all the organizations can agree upon, and then we organize Catskill Park Day, which is always the first Tuesday of February. We go up to Albany and we meet with as many legislators as possible,” Senterman explains.
In 2017 alone, advocacy efforts helped secure $7.3 million for Catskill Park projects in the New York State budget. “This year we’re asking for $10 million in state projects across the park, along with a number of other features,” Senterman says. Among these is the “Save the Hemlocks” initiative which would fund work by Cornell University to create effective biocontrols against the hemlock Wooley Adelgid, an invasive pest which has devastated the area’s hemlock trees.
“For all that we do we are still a relatively small organization. We are a 501(c))3 nonprofit and we are really supported by the generosity of those in the Catskills—that’s what lets us do the work. We do have some contracts with New York State, but overall the work of the Catskill Center is being supported by people who love the Catskills.”
Want to support the Catskill Center? Visit them online at catskillcenter.org to become a member. Visitors can also check out their headquarters at the Erpf Center in Arkville, or the Catskill Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper.