History of the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve

History of the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve
- Written by Norm Van Valkenbergh; compiled and edited from various sources by Chris Olney; with some additions by Chris Olney

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The history behind the creation, purpose, and evolution of the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve is not fully understood by many. To learn the context of how the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve came to be, one has to look at what was going on in the Adirondacks and in the State Capitol during the 1700′s and 1800′s.

In the early years of New York State, and indeed the nation, the State was the owner of several million acres of forested land. Following the Revolutionary War, in 1779, the new State’s fledgling legislature passed what was referred to as the ‘Act of Attainder’ law, officially transferring all lands owned by the Crown of England as of July 9, 1776 to the people of New York. The same act also voided the land titles of those who had remained loyal to the Crown during the fight for independence and declared those lands to be owned by the State. These lands amounted to approximately seven million acres and were mostly in the Adirondacks, covering that entire large region. In other parts of the State, huge tracts of land had been patented away by the Crown to individuals long before and were now mostly settled. This was especially true in the Catskills where Queen Anne had granted one and a half million acres to Johannes Hardenbergh and his partners on April 20, 1708. The State therefore inherited little or no land in the Catskills when the Act of Attainder was passed.

There was little or no preservation sentiment this early on, and settlement and industry were the primary motivating social forces of the times. The young state government had little revenue to keep it functioning this early on, and public officials seemed bent on getting rid of the millions of acres of land the State now held in the Adirondacks; a seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural resources. Early state legislatures, beginning in the 1780′s and continuing for over 50 years, passed a series of laws designed for easy disposal of the "waste and unappropriated lands" of the Adirondacks. They sold off public land to private individuals for one shilling per acre, and exempted those lands from state taxes for a seven year period. The single largest of these land grants was made to Alexander Macomb in 1792, when the State sold 3,635,200 acres to Macomb for "a generous eight pence per acre." Most of the buyers, however, were logging and railroad companies who were interested in turning a quick profit from cutting and selling timber. By the early 1800′s the lumbermen had exhausted most of the easily accessible tracts in the flatlands and began to move up into the greener areas of the surrounding mountains. The State succeeded in getting rid of its Adirondack land, conveying nearly all of it by about 1820. Private landowners also often succumbed to the pressures of the logging companies when they could no longer deal with the burden of property taxes. After the profitable trees and other resources were removed, the companies usually then got out and allowed the land to return to the State for unpaid property taxes. Much of that land returned to public ownership far depleted in value after the removal or other destruction of the forest resource.

While the logging industry was the worst offender in the despoliation of the forests, other enterprises were also to blame. The tanning industry, especially in the Catskills, wiped out hemlock trees to the extent that tanneries were forced to give up the business because of the lack of readily available hemlock bark. The paper industry seriously depleted the spruce, pine, basswood, popple, and white birch. The charcoal industry thrived on clear-cutting the area of its operation. The forested area of New York’s mountains was also decreased by major fires caused by careless lumbermen. Timber thieves stripped the unprotected state-owned lands. And of course the forests were further encroached upon by the settlements and farms that expanded into the interior of both the Adirondacks and the Catskills in the early 1800′s. Following a tour of the United States in 1831-32, French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his observations and impressions; "In Europe people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature. Their eyes are fired with another site; they march across these wilds, clearing swamps, turning the courses of rivers…" Later, in the 1850′s, the state legislature gave the railroad companies the right to purchase many thousands of acres of the remaining State lands, leaving only the inaccessible mountain peaks and passes in the distance.

The fish and game of the mountains were treated with the same careless abandon as the forests themselves. Early journalists and authors, after visiting the Adirondacks and Catskills, wrote of the seemingly infinite supply of sport that could be had in those areas. Stories of catching 120 pounds of trout in two hours, of shooting five deer in one month, or of catching a 19-pound trout were not uncommon and were no doubt true, because there were no laws prohibiting such excessive harvests of fish and game. Tales such as these brought hunters and fishermen to the mountains in droves with the inevitable result that by 1820 the last trout was gone from Saratoga Lake; by 1822 the wolf had disappeared; the moose, elk, and panther disappeared; no more 19-pound trout were reported. Hotels and spas sprang up in what forests were left, serviced by extensive new railroads, and by 1850 America’s first wilderness was no more.

But popular attitudes about nature slowly began to change in the early to mid-1800′s, and a romantic movement began to idealize nature and provide a voice to counter our culture’s steady consumption of natural resources and degradation of natural systems. Famed painter Thomas Cole began painting idyllic scenes in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley in the 1820′s, and in 1839 Charles Cromwell Ingham, founder of the National Academy of Design, first exhibited his oil painting of "the Great Adirondack Pass" inspired by a geology survey he participated in two years earlier. Such works began a tradition of Adirondack and Catskill landscape painting that would be popularized by the ‘Hudson River School’ of landscape painters who came after them.

Dr. Elliot Vesell, scholar of the Hudson River School, writes, "The work of the Hudson River School represents the first, and perhaps the last, systematic attempt to depict on canvas a unified vision of the American landscape. It celebrated the wonders of nature in this country by elaborately describing the facts of natural landscape and by presenting seemingly endless vistas through clear uncontaminated air." Vesell maintains that what the dozen or so artists of the Hudson River School shared was "a common spirit of devotion to nature and a common background of aesthetic ideas", and that their collective achievement in the mid-1800′s was "to present a new view of nature and of man’s relationship to nature which had widespread ramifications in American literature as well as in other aspects of American culture."

The paintings of the Hudson River School, along with the writings of authors and poets such as James Fennimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough, and Walt Whitman, began to influence popular American conceptions about the value of nature. Vesell states that both the painters and writers of the early and mid-1800′s generally "associated nature with virtue and civilization with degeneracy and evil", and summarizes that the basic message of popular nature writing of the time was that "Americans, particularly close to nature, were still virtuous, but with the march of civilization as measured by the progress of the axe through the forests, virtue would vanish, health would be destroyed, and the nation’s personality lost." Author Peter Wild notes that Thoreau was one of the earliest advocates for setting aside wild lands and leaving them in their natural state, and as early as the 1830′s artist George Catlin was advocating for a system of national parks. A growing urban population began to embrace the romanticism of nature and sought out beautiful places among the rivers and mountains to relax, recreate, and improve their physical and mental health.

The importance of forests in the matter of water supply began to be recognized in the 1850′s. Water, of course, was necessary for drinking purposes, and for the lumbering industry and most other businesses of that time it was the least expensive and most convenient mode of transportation. Early naturalists and scientists pointed out that continued depletion of the woodlands of important watersheds seriously endangered the maintenance of stream flows and hastened flooding and erosion of valuable topsoil. Some early writers and editors in New York finally recognized that it was time for action and called for a new Adirondack policy. S.J. Hammond, in his 1857 book Wild Northern Scenes, said of the Adirondacks, "Had I my way I would mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever." George Dawson of the Albany Evening Journal said much the same thing in editorials of the late 1850′s, and in an 1864 editorial of the New York Times, Henry J. Raymond asked that concerned citizens get together and "seizing upon the choicest of the Adirondack Mountains, before they are despoiled of their forest, make of them grand parks owned in common …"

It was also in 1864 that George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. This work is essentially one of the first textbooks on ecology, and in it Marsh describes the relationship of one part of the environment to another, and how the influences of man impacts that relationship. Marsh singles out forestland in particular as critical for holding together other important components of a natural landscape. The book did not specifically address New York State, however it became a foundation and influencing factor for others arguing for the New York Forest Preserve in later years. People with scientific backgrounds gradually began to join the battle for forest protection in New York. Franklin B. Hough, a doctor and noted historian from Lewis County, who in 1881 became the first chief of the Federal Division of Forestry (forerunner to the U.S. Forest Service), traveled the backcountry of the Adirondacks directing the 1865 state census. He was appalled at the condition of the forests and was scientist enough to realize the disastrous results that could occur if denudation of the watersheds was allowed to continue. He began to preach the need for adoption of forest conservation practices, and he used his influence with friends in government to arouse public sentiment for his cause. Famed landscape architect and proponent of wild parks, Frederick Law Olmstead, also advocated the setting aside of land to protect the Adirondacks.

Conservationist John Muir and the Catskill’s own nature essayist, John Burroughs, carried on the American popularization of nature in the latter half of the 19th century. Such authors, according to Peter Wild, "saw their souls reflected in America’s wildlife and woodlands. To them, setting aside forests as unexploited wholes often took on a religious imperative. Their books and articles in magazines stirred the public to re-evaluate its long-ignored wild heritage." Similarly, sportsmen’s groups and various hunting and fishing periodicals began the fight for a better system of game laws and game management in the 1860′s and 70′s. George Bird Grinnell, paleontologist, naturalist, and editor of the popular publication Forest and Stream, would later argue continually in the final decade of the century for sound forest management in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Despite the formation of the Commission of Fisheries in 1868, the State’s first natural resources-related commission, individuals eventually took matters into their own hands by buying large tracts of land and forming private fishing and hunting clubs. Trout fishing historians Austin Francis (in his book "Catskill Rivers") and Ed Van Put (in his book "The Beaverkill") tell the stories of several such fishing clubs here in the Catskills. Noted angling clubs such as the Willowemoc Club became established in 1868, the Salmo Fontinalis Club in 1873, the Beaverkill Association (later the Beaverkill Trout Club) in 1875, the Beaverkill Club in 1878, the Balsam Lake Club in 1883, the Fly Fishers Club of Brooklyn in 1895, and the Tuscarora Club in 1901.

The economic motives of powerful businessman of the time were almost as strong as the motives of conservationists for forest and watershed protection in New York’s mountain areas. Peter Wild notes that business groups such as the Manufacturer’s Aid Association of Watertown were big supporters of the creation of a New York forest preserve "because of industry’s dependence on a steady supply of water power, which only healthy forests could provide", and that "business leaders in New York [City] recognized the link between the city’s growth and nature. They fretted about sufficient drinking water but also about how to keep the Erie Canal full, their economic lifeline."

Verplanck Colvin, an Albany man trained in the law and a self-made land surveyor, first visited the Adirondacks in 1865 and "was amazed at the natural park-like beauty of this wilderness", and began suggesting the preservation of the remaining wilderness areas as a state park. On October 15, 1870, Colvin climbed Mt. Seward in the Adirondacks, and recorded that "the view hence was magnificent, yet differing from other of the loftier Adirondacks, in that no clearings were discernable; wilderness everywhere; lake on lake, river on river, mountain on mountain, numberless." It was at this place, and at this time that the Forest Preserve of New York State started on the path toward reality. Following his trip, Colvin said in the 24th Annual Report of the New York State Museum of Natural History that "… these forests should be preserved; and for posterity should be set aside, this Adirondack region, as a park for New York …" No mention was made of the Catskills. The forest protection ideas of Colvin and Hough, who met each other at meetings of the Albany Institute (a respected literary and scientific society), were well received by people who saw the need for a more reliable and clean water supply for Albany, possibly from the Hudson River emanating from the Adirondack Mountains.

The State legislature was paying attention to Albany’s recent drought and water supply problems, and out of it all came an 1872 law (Chapter 848) that established "A commission of State parks … to inquire into the expediency of providing for vesting in the State the title to the timbered regions lying within the counties of Lewis, Essex, Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Herkimer and Hamilton, and converting the same into a public park." The Commissioners, in reporting their results to the 1873 Legislature, said "… we are of opinion that the protection of a great portion of that forest from wanton destruction is absolutely and immediately required."

The report outlined the scarcity of settlements in the area and pointed out the disastrous effects that mining, tanning, lumbering, and forest fires had had on what was once a vast tract of virgin forest. The report deplored the early sales of land to private individuals for nominal sums and the outright grants of huge tracts to railroad companies. It tabulated the public acreage in those Adirondack counties, as of the date of the report, to be 39,854 acres, and noted that this was only a small fraction of the land holdings that had been vested in the public at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The report elaborated that the State of New York contained some of the most remarkable watershed areas in eastern North America, with the St. Lawrence River on the north, the Great Lakes on the west, the Allegany River on the south, and the Hudson on the east. The report did not recommend that the Adirondack forests be preserved forevermore, but it did recommend that consideration should be given to the utilization of the forests as a product or crop. It expounded on the value of boating, camping, hunting, and fishing "to strengthen and revive the human frame … to afford that physical training which northern America stands sadly in need of." It further pointed out the health-giving values of having a wilderness area accessible to a large population. It is worth noting that in this first official study the concepts of preservation, management, and recreational development were largely treated as compatible and simultaneously attainable.

Unfortunately, not much came of that report and opinion. However in 1874 Assemblyman Thomas Alvord introduced a bill entitled "AN ACT to create and preserve a public forest, to be known as the Adirondack Park." The bill though did not have a Senate sponsor and progressed no further. In 1876, the State Legislature did pass a law (Chapter 297) prohibiting "the disposal of any part of the public lands on Lake George or the islands thereof." In 1882 Governor Alonzo Cornell, in his message to the legislature, condemned the State’s policy of selling its wild lands. He suggested that the uses of the Adirondacks should be carefully restricted. Similarly, Governor Grover Cleveland said in his 1883 message to the State Legislature that the Adirondack forests should be preserved, and that the present state lands and all other lands "it may hereafter acquire" should be declared "to be park lands."

All of the pressure being brought about by public officials, individuals, and the public-at-large began to take effect in 1883. In that year the Legislature passed a law (Chapter 13 of the Laws of 1883) prohibiting the sale "of lands belonging to the State situated in the counties of Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Lewis, Saratoga, St. Lawrence and Warren", these being the seven counties inquired into by the 1872 Commission, plus Warren County, which includes Lake George, and the two additional counties of Fulton and Saratoga. Another law passed that year (Chapter 470) also helped lay the groundwork for the future Forest Preserve, by granting the Comptroller the authority to spend up to $10,000 to purchase forest lands with unpaid taxes in the Adirondacks – the first such appropriation. The foundation for the Forest Preserve was being laid, but the Catskills were not going to be a part of it. Or so it seemed.

With the enactment of the laws stopping the sales of Adirondack lands, it appeared that the State was going to continue to be a major landowner. Furthermore, additional lands were coming to the State for unpaid taxes and through partition sales. The time had finally come to provide some sort of management and protection to its ownerships. Accordingly, the deficiency budget of 1884 appropriated $10,000 to the Comptroller for "… perfecting the state’s title to such lands; of definitely locating, appraising and examining them as may be required; of protecting them from trespassers or despoilers and prosecuting all such offenders, and generally of guarding, preserving the value of and protecting such lands …" The same budget (Chapter 551 of the Laws of 1884) provided $5,000 to the Comptroller "for the employment of such experts as he may deem necessary to investigate and report a system of forest preservation …" Here now the Catskills had a chance at protection because these ‘experts’ were not confined to any single geographic area or list of specific counties.

The ‘experts’, or Commissioners as they called themselves, were led by Professor Charles Sprague Sargent of Harvard University, the country’s premier dendrologist at that time. The Commission reported to Comptroller Alfred C. Chapin on January 23, 1885, saying that they had "devoted themselves industriously to the study of the question." They had visited the Adirondacks a number of times, had "caused a detailed examination of the position and condition of the Adirondack forests to be made by trained forest experts", and were convinced that something certainly did need to be done to preserve the forests. They noted the continued plundering in the Adirondacks that "reduces this whole region to an unproductive and dangerous desert." The Commission noted the advantages of a continuing forest on the flow of water and outlined the forest as a natural recreational area to be enjoyed by the people. It laid the blame for the destruction of the forests to the charcoal and lumber industries, the construction of numerous small reservoirs throughout the mountains, and forest fires. It pointed the finger of accusation at the railroads and loggers for the vast number of fires that were helping to destroy the remaining trees.

The Commission ‘experts’ had also "visited the forest region of Ulster and Delaware counties," but were not much impressed. They said, "The forests of the Catskill region are not unlike in actual condition those covering the hills which mark the southern limits of the Adirondack plateau. The merchantable timber and the hemlock bark were long ago cut, and fires have more than once swept over the entire region, destroying the reproductive powers of the forest as originally composed and ruining the fertility of the thin soil, covering the hills. The valleys have now, however, all been cleared for farms, and forest fires consequently occur less frequently than formerly. A stunted and scrubby growth of trees is gradually repossessing the hills, which, if strictly protected, may sooner or later develop into a comparatively valuable forest. The protection of these forests is, however, of less general importance than the preservation of the Adirondack forests. The possibility of their yielding merchantable timber again in any considerable quantities is at best remote; and they guard no streams of more than local influence. Their real value consists in increasing the beauties of summer resorts, which are of great importance to the people of the State."

The Commissioner’s report recommended that the State not enter into the acquisition of additional lands by condemnation, but rather to initiate an acquisition program based on purchases, which would be better received by the public. It stated however, that there would be no benefit to purchasing additional lands if past poor management practices were to continue. The commissioners recommended that a forest commission be set up to create regulations and policy for the administration of the public lands. The report went on to recommend legislation establishing a Forest Preserve of "all the lands now owned or which may hereafter be acquired by the State of New York" to the ten Adirondack counties listed in the 1883 law and the additional county of Washington, with such lands to "be forever kept as wild forest lands." A second law was recommended to amend the penal code to set forth punishments for violations relating to forest destruction, and a third law was recommended to provide that the lands of the Forest Preserve would be taxable for all purposes.

The Comptroller was willing to accept and endorse all of this, and submit the recommendations to the state legislature for action. So the Catskills were not intended to be included in the new Forest Preserve after all. Comptroller Chapin, however, had not fully reckoned with the likes of Cornelius Hardenbergh. The fact that the State land "now owned or which may hereafter be acquired" in the Catskills did become part of New York’s Forest Preserve, and subsequently that a Catskill Park was created, all had to do with the tenacity of Hardenbergh and a complicated series of laws dealing with property taxes (and the non-payment of them).

Cornelius A.J. Hardenbergh [see figure] was a bachelor, farmer, merchant, and public servant – not necessarily in that order. He owned and operated a 110-acre farm on the northerly bank of the Shawangunk Kill at the point where the stream formed the southerly boundary of the Town Shawangunk and the line between Ulster and Orange Counties. He picked up his mail in Pine Bush, just across the kill in Orange County, but he resided in Ulster County. Hardenbergh was an avowed opponent of taxes. When a tax was to be imposed on his wheel-making shop and business in the early days of the Civil War, he closed his shop rather than pay the tax. An admiring public elected him supervisor of the Town of Shawangunk, and then served on the Board of Supervisors of Ulster County, sometimes as its chairman. It was in this capacity that Hardenbergh became involved in a running battle with State Comptroller Chapin and his predecessors over state taxes being assessed against the lands acquired by the county at tax sale. No matter that Ulster County was not being treated any differently from any other county in the state, Hardenbergh opposed such taxation by the State.

In the 1870′s, a succession of laws were passed requiring county treasurers to collect all taxes levied on lands for state or county purposes. These laws further required the counties to pay the state taxes by the first of May each year whether the treasurers had been able to collect them or not. Ulster County was added to the list of counties subject to these requirements by Chapter 200 of the Laws of 1879. If that wasn’t bad enough, Chapter 371 of the Laws of 1879 was passed a month later to restate, word for word, the same provisions as were in Chapter 200, allegedly enacted to correct a minor error in the title of the first law. If Hardenbergh wasn’t incensed the first time around, he surely was at the passage of the second law. Then came Chapter 382 of the Laws of 1879, which provided that the Comptroller would issue a deed to the counties for each parcel of land not redeemed or sold at the 1877 tax sale. That law further required that the counties were liable for the current unpaid taxes on these lands, as well as for later taxes that would come due. If the counties didn’t pay the taxes in ninety days, then interest at the rate of 6% would be added.

The Comptroller at this point was holding the winning hand. Hardenbergh, however, saw to it that Ulster County did not pay the Comptroller’s bills. He won a minor point when he influenced the passage of Chapter 573 of the Laws of 1880. This law restated the procedures for publishing notices of pending tax sales as such procedures had been set out in the 1879 laws. There was one change. The earlier laws had said, "the publishing of the said notice not to exceed the sum of two dollars for each newspaper so publishing each of the several notices…" The 1880 law contained the same wording but added, "excepting in the county of Ulster, wherein the sum shall not exceed one dollar."

The next round also went to Hardenbergh. The last 1879 law had provided that after the state acquired title to unredeemed and unsold lands, the Comptroller would deed these lands to the respective counties. Chapter 260 of Laws of 1881 changed that for Ulster County only. This law said that, "should there be no purchaser willing to bid the amount due on the lot or parcel of land to be sold," then the Ulster Country treasurer could bid on the "lot or parcel of land for the county." He then, and not the Comptroller, would issue the deed to the county or, if so directed by the Ulster County Board of Supervisors, he could sell the land. Other provisions of this law clearly set out the battle lines. One section stated, in referring to the earlier laws, "Where any authority is given or duly enjoined by those laws on the comptroller of the state, the same authority shall be exercised and the same duty shall be devolved on the county treasurer of Ulster County." One of the final sections of the law provided that lands acquired by Ulster County for unpaid taxes "shall be exempt while so owned by said county from all taxes" and directed the treasurer "to strike such land from the tax roll …" Finally, it repealed, "All acts or parts of acts inconsistent herewith, so far as the county of Ulster is affected …"

The Comptroller won the round after that. Chapter 402 of the Laws of 1881 was passed just two weeks after Chapter 260. It repeated many of the provisions of the 1855 law, on which all of the later laws had been based. While not ever mentioning Ulster County, the language of the law makes it clear to what county it was directed. The listing of counties required to turn over delinquent tax lands to the Comptroller for sale, which did not include Ulster County, was followed by the phrase, "or any other county for which there may, at the time, be a special law authorizing and directing the treasurer thereof to sell ‘lands of non-residents’ for unpaid taxes thereon …" That, of course, meant Ulster County. This latest law put things back the way they were. The Comptroller was directed to issue deeds to the counties for unredeemed and unsold lands. The final provision of the law stated, "All acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act are hereby repealed."

The Comptroller was still ahead with the passage of Chapter 516 of the Laws of 1883. This law set out what was to happen to the lands not sold on the 1881 tax sale. It included Ulster County again not by name, but by the "all other counties" phrase. Again, the Comptroller was to issue the deeds to the counties and the counties would be liable for taxes due and 6% interest if the Comptroller’s bills were not paid. In the case of Ulster County, they weren’t. By this time, in fact, the county was in arrears some $40,000. From his vantage point on the fringe of Ulster County, Hardenbergh needed someone "in high places." In 1879, the year when Ulster County began to run up its tax bill under the provisions of the laws detrimental to its interest, one of those representing the county was a freshman Assemblyman, George H. Sharpe from the City of Kingston. In that year all three Assemblymen from Ulster County were freshmen, still novices at the devious routes of lawmaking. In 1880, when it appeared that Ulster County was on the verge of getting the upper hand, Sharpe had become Speaker of the Assembly. It was he who had successfully moved Chapter 260, Ulster County’s high point in the battle, through the legislative process. He was unable, however, to forestall the passage of Chapter 402. In 1882, a quiet year for Ulster County and its tax problems, Sharpe was serving his last year as an Assemblyman and was no longer Speaker. He had, however, provided good service to his Ulster County constituency.

Another freshman Assemblyman took his seat in 1882. Alfred C. Chapin, representing Kings County, would later become the last mayor of the independent City of Brooklyn and would preside over its amalgamation into the City of New York at the turn of the century. Speaker of the Assembly when Chapter 516 was enacted in 1883, he became Comptroller the following year. It was he who would do the final battle with Hardenbergh, who was elected Assemblyman at the November 1884 general election. Now Hardenbergh would carry his own bills, and he wasn’t long in making himself known. Early in the session, influenced by the 1883 law prohibiting the sale of state lands in the eleven Adirondack counties, he introduced a bill to prohibit the state from selling its land in Ulster County also. It didn’t get anywhere. Undeterred, he and his Ulster County colleague, Assemblyman Gilbert D. B. Hasbrouck of Port Ewen, went to work on a bill that was enacted on April 20, 1885 – about the same time that Comptroller Chapin was receiving the report of the ‘experts’ investigating "a system of forest preservation."

Chapter 158 was a sweeping piece of legislation. It repeated, by listing every one of the 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1883 laws "as the same in any wise relate to the county of Ulster" and relieved the county "from the operation of said laws." It directed the Comptroller to cancel all previous sales of lands to Ulster County under any of the repealed laws and to convey those lands to the state. Finally, and most importantly, it directed the Comptroller to give credit on his books to Ulster County for the principal and interest due on the lands that would be conveyed to the state. In one law, Ulster County was out from under its debt and its large tax sale land holdings were owned by the state.

Comptroller Chapin was supportive of the recommendation to create a forever wild Forest Preserve of the state lands in the eleven Adirondack counties. He even felt it only fair, as recommended by the report, that the state should pay taxes on these lands to the local governments where they were located. Hardenbergh had a particular ally in the Senate who also supported the creation of the Forest Preserve. Senator Henry R. Low, representing Orange County, was a near neighbor of Hardenbergh’s, residing at Middletown, only fifteen miles south of Pine Push, on the banks of the Shawangunk Kill. Low had been a sponsor of the original bill recommended by the ‘experts’ and was a major participant in the conferences in which the final bill was written. He introduced the final bill in the Senate. The sponsor in the Assembly was James W. Husted from Peekskill in Westchester County, just across the Hudson River from Orange County.

And so it was that the New York State Forest Preserve was created on May 15, 1885, when Governor David B. Hill signed Chapter 283 of the Laws of 1885. This law established a three-person Forest Commission "appointed by the governor by and with the advice and consent of the senate" to have "care, custody, control and superintendence of the forest preserve." The Commission was empowered to "employ a forest warden, forest inspectors, a clerk and all such agents, as they may deem necessary …" It stated (in Section 8) that, "The lands now or hereafter constituting the forest preserve shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be sold, nor shall they be leased or taken by any person or corporation, public or private." As had been recommended by the ‘experts’, this law defined the Forest Preserve as being, "All the lands now owned or which may hereafter be acquired by the state of New York, within …" the eleven Adirondack counties except such lands in the Clinton County towns of Altona and Dannemora, in order to provide for the prison at Dannemora and the lands used by the prison for its wood supply. Tacked onto the end of the list of Adirondack counties, thanks to the political maneuvering of Cornelius Hardenbergh, were the three Catskill counties of Greene, Ulster and Sullivan. The Forest Preserve began with 681,374 acres in the Adirondacks, and 33,894 acres in the Catskills.

Hardenbergh was serving the second year of his term when Chapter 280 of the Laws of 1886 was enacted. This was the companion bill recommended by the ‘experts’ to provide for taxation of the state lands. It stated that all lands of the Forest Preserve "shall be assessed and taxed at a like valuation and at a like rate as those at which similar lands of individuals within such counties are assessed and taxed …" It set out the procedures by which and the dates when the Comptroller was required to certify and the State Treasurer was required to pay annual taxes to the treasurers of the Forest Preserve counties. Thus, not only was Ulster County free from its tax bill, but from that time forward it has received taxes from the state on those same lands that had been involved in the battle.

Hardenbergh left the Assembly at the end of his two-year term and went back to Ulster County. Over the years, many have debated just who was the "father" of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. The favorite seems to be Verplanck Colvin, and rightly so. However, no such debate has asked who was the "father" of the Catskill Forest Preserve, probably because the Catskill Forest Preserve has just quietly existed without much controversy, and has therefore received less attention than its Adirondack counterpart. Those who know of Hardenbergh’s involvement have debated his motives. Some say he was interested only in solving Ulster County’s tax problems and took the way out offered by the times. Others say bringing the state lands of the Catskills into the Forest Preserve was his main goal and, in reaching that, he solved the tax problems. We probably will never know the answer, but the fact remains, whatever the motive, without Cornelius A. J. Hardenbergh, the people of New York State would not enjoy the benefits of a Catskill Forest Preserve. That is certainly reason enough to remember his place in history.

It took a few months to appoint the three-member Forest Commission. The first appointment was quickly made a week or so after the signing of the law – Theodore B. Basselin, a lumberman from Croghan in Lewis County with one of the largest timber cutting operations in the Adirondacks. It was not until September that the remaining two members were appointed; Townsend Cox, a New York City stockbroker from Glen Cove, Long Island and Sherman W. Knevals, a lawyer from New York City. They held their first meeting on September 23, 1885 and "took immediate steps to familiarize themselves with the duties and various interests intrusted [sic] to their charge." The preservation of forests was their principle objective, for the stated purposes of ensuring "the value of present and future timber; the value of forests as ‘health resorts’; the conservation of sources of water supply; the increase of rainfall; and the climatic and sanitary influence of forests." They visited the Adirondack and Catskill regions. These visits were cursory only and they did not venture far from the main roads and villages. Instead, they hired "experienced, competent men … as special agents, who penetrated to every part of the wilderness."

In the case of the Catskills, the Commission did not really know what they had. After all, this addition to the Forest Preserve had been a last-minute political maneuver, and very little data existed as to the location of this state land asset. The Commission recognized in its first annual report that "the existence of the Catskill Preserve seems to be little known, although the State owns a large tract in the Catskill region." A tabulation of the state ownership did exist however, which indicated a total of 33,894 acres in the three Catskill counties. Greene County had 661 acres (507 acres in the Town of Lexington and 154 acres in the Town of Cairo). Sullivan County contained 502 acres (scattered in the Towns of Highland, Lumberland and Neversink). The remaining 32,731 acres was in Ulster County (with most of that being in the mountain Towns of Denning, Hardenbergh and Shandaken, principally on and around Slide Mountain). Most of this Catskill acreage was acquired by the State in the 1870′s and 1880′s as a result of tax sales and mortgage foreclosures. The Commission was quick to realize that the listing of Catskill counties was one short when they said, "The Catskill region occupies parts of four counties" and recommended a bill to add Delaware County.

The special agents who "penetrated to every part of the wilderness" came back with a different story than the ‘experts’ who had reported to Comptroller Chapin. The Catskill Forest Preserve, they said, "… is surrounded by the grandest of its scenery. Here the Slide Mountain rears its majestic form, surrounded by its retinue of lesser peaks. Here, also, are the deep, cool valleys, whose silence is broken only by the rushing cascades, or by the murmur of woodland sounds. Here are the rocky glens, among which the Peekamoose is so justly celebrated, while on every side the eye is greeted by an array of scenery unsurpassed throughout the State."

The streams also were "of more than local influence." The waters of the Schoharie Creek, they said, are "utilized as a feeder to the Erie Canal. … The Esopus Creek … pours its waters into the Hudson at Saugerties, affording an important water power, which is used to advantage by the manufacturers near its mouth. The east and west branches of the Neversink and the east branch of the Delaware all rise here, and flowing southward unite at Port Jervis and enter the Atlantic through Delaware Bay. … Numerous mountain streams have become repopulated with trout, and now afford some of the best fishing in the State."

Even with that report, however, more needed to be known. In June of 1886, Commissioner Townsend Cox "penetrated" the interior of the Catskills himself when he climbed Slide Mountain, tallest peak in the Catskills. While Cox’s trip was largely for political reasons, he did, in a meeting with reporters the following morning, stress the benefits of the Catskill Forest Preserve in maintaining the streams flowing from the area to form the rivers that were important to New York and its neighboring states.

In addition, the Commission "detailed Inspector Charles F. Carpenter to make a thorough examination of the Catskill Preserve." Carpenter stood fourth in line in the hierarchy of the staff employed by the Commission in 1886. Abner L. Train of Albany was secretary, Samuel F. Garmon of Lowville (Lewis County) was warden, William F. Fox of Albany was assistant warden, and Carpenter was the chief of two inspectors, drawing a salary of $125 a month. In addition, fifteen foresters were employed at $40 a month. All were headquartered throughout the Adirondacks except for one, Michael Hogan, who was stationed at Ellenville in Ulster County. Carpenter indeed made a "thorough examination" of the Catskill Mountains. His report covered 51 pages of the Commission’s annual report for 1886. He first described the geography of the Catskills, their mountains, streams, lakes, ponds and soils. Then he detailed the forest cover of the area, deploring "the reckless waste going on all the time, and the noble forests mowed down to satisfy the cupidity of man …" He talked about the state lands composing the new Forest Preserve, and he too thought Delaware County should be added because "the State lands within that county are still under the control and management of the Commissioners of the Land Office and the State Comptroller. While this state of affairs exists the people of this county lose the benefit of the act … which provides for the taxation of State forest lands in the counties embracing the forest preserve." After all, he said, "the State paid a tax of $638.25 for the year 1886" to Ulster County.

Carpenter knew of the fight waged by Ulster County over its taxes because he discussed the various laws that had been involved up to and including the act "passed April 20, 1885, just twenty-five days before the passage of the act creating the Forest Commission." All of it was, he said, "Through the enterprise of one or two citizens of Kingston an evidence of forethought and prudence, which from the earliest history of this region has always been justly attributed to the inhabitants of Wildwyk, now the city of Kingston."

Carpenter discussed the roads and highways and railroads that serviced the Catskills. He talked about the fine fishing and small-game hunting opportunities. He traced the history of the lumbering and tanning industries that had depleted the forests. He then described the "various industries" he had found "in making a tour of the counties embracing the Catskill forest preserve" town by town, village by village. He had, in fact, gone beyond the three counties, describing some industries in Delaware and Orange Counties as well. He was impressed by the Catskills, concluding that he had "rarely found … an abandoned homestead … This distinguishes this wild region from the similar one in the Adirondacks, where deserted homesteads are met at frequent intervals, and in places the dilapidated remains of whole villages … The Catskill region as a whole has a good soil and friendly climate, which the Adirondacks can scarcely be said to possess."

After all that, one would have thought that the Catskills would have received some major attention from the Forest Commission. But it didn’t. The Catskills slipped into the role of being secondary to the Adirondacks; a role that continues to this day. That may not be all bad, as any new idea is generally tried first in the Adirondacks and if it works, then it is applied to the Catskills, hopefully with all the quirks worked out. One beneficial result from the initial attention paid to the Catskills however, was the passage of Chapter 520 of the Laws of 1888, which added Delaware County to the county listing and made its 17,340 acres of state land a part of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Most of this land was south of the East Branch of the Delaware River and along the Ulster County line in the Towns of Andes, Colchester and Middletown. Also at this time was the first real attack on, and weakening of, the newly created Forest Preserve. Chapter 475 of the Laws of 1887 redefined a part of the duties of the Forest Commission and authorized the Commission to sell and convey "separate small parcels or tracts wholly detached from the main portions of the Forest Preserve and bounded on every side by lands not owned by the State, to sell the timber thereon, and to exchange these tracts for other lands adjoining the main tracts of the Forest Preserve." While this piece of legislation seems fairly definitive, it should be noted that no attempt was made to define the size of a "separate small parcel or tract." This law was presumably sponsored by the lumber interests, and it opened a crack in the door that had been slammed shut two years before. To some, it was not a good law; to others it was made to order. Significantly, it became a statute without the Governor’s signature – he neither approved nor vetoed it in ten days and therefore it returned to the Legislature as law.

An Adirondack Park had been a concept talked about since the very first pleas were heard to do something about saving and preserving the Adirondack forests and mountains. An 1864 New York Times editorial by Henry J. Raymond had said, make "grand parks" of the "choicest of the Adirondack Mountains." Verplanck Colvin said, in speaking of the destruction of Adirondack forests in his 1870 report to the New York State Museum of Natural History, "The remedy for this is the creation of an Adirondack Park or timber preserve…" The 1872 Commission of State Parks was to look into converting the timbered regions of certain of the Adirondack counties "into a public park." Colvin, in his 1874 report to the Legislature on his "survey of the Adirondack wilderness," talked about the state acquiring all of the land in the High Peaks region of Essex, Franklin, and Hamilton counties and setting it aside as a park. He continued to be the chief proponent of the Adirondack Park idea during the 1870′s and 1880′s.

Throughout these times, those speaking of an Adirondack Park envisioned that all lands within the park boundary would be state-owned public land. By 1890, however, that concept was beginning to change. Governor David B. Hill, in his message to the Legislature of that year, thought a park should be outlined to include the "wilder portion of this (Adirondack) region covering the mountains and lakes" and, then acquire lands in that park area. Chapter 8 of the Laws of 1890 redefined the Forest Preserve by re-listing all of the counties that had been set forth the previous year (which had grown from the original listing to include Oneida County in the southwestern Adirondacks), but then it excepted form the Preserve all state lands within the limits of any incorporated village or city. Chapter 37 of the same year appropriated $25,000 to purchase lands in the Forest Preserve counties, which was the first such appropriation for the acquisition of lands to expand the Preserve. This same law also made reference to a State park as it might relate to the Forest Preserve lands.

The Forest Commission report for 1890 called attention to the existing scattered pattern of state land ownership and recognized that additions to this state land must come from purchases. It noted the public sentiment favoring acquisition and called for legislation to enable the state to acquire and hold state land in "one grand, unbroken domain." It stated that an advantage of increased ownership would be that greater control could be exercised against the railroads and trespass. The Commissioners revised their reasons for preserving forests to be for the "maintenance of timber supply; conservation and protection of watersheds; preservation and protection of fish and game; and the founding of a permanent public resort."

Notably, the 1890 Forest Commission Report included discussion on the subject of a proposed Adirondack Park. One of the most interesting parts of the report was the inclusion of a map of the Adirondacks on which a proposed park boundary had been delineated in blue. From that time forward, the phrases "inside the blue line" and "outside the blue line" have been used to describe lands inside and outside the Adirondack and Catskill Park boundaries. Unfortunately, the narrative of the report in regard to public ownership within a new Adirondack Park was contradictory. The commission seemed unwilling to say whether all lands inside the proposed park should be acquired by the State or not, so in different places in the text they said both. The report noted that it was unwise to proceed with acquisition of the entire Adirondack plateau, recognized the presence of villages and private clubs within the ‘blue line’, and concluded that proper forest management on private lands could be a compatible land use in the Park. But at the same time it said that all of the lands within the park boundary should gradually be acquired. There was also unclear language in regard to timbering on State lands inside and outside of the park boundary. The Commission felt that state lands outside of the park should be sold whenever those lands did not, in the opinion of the Commission, promote the purpose of the Forest Preserve, and the proceeds would then be used to buy additional lands inside the park. The Commission concluded by unanimously recommending the necessary legislation to establish and manage a park in the Adirondack wilderness, and state acquisition of title to all the forest lands within the limits of the park "which it is possible to acquire, in the shortest practicable time." Use of the word ‘manage’ would seem to leave the door open for the practice of forestry and lumbering on the State lands, and the use of the word ‘forest’ as an adjective modifying the word ‘lands’ suggests that it was the Commission’s recommendation not to acquire non-forested lands within the ‘blue line’.

The 1891 report of the Forest Commission again addressed the idea of an Adirondack Park, and this time recommended a bill to create the park. Again the Commission advocated for lumbering on Forest Preserve lands and for the sale of certain State lands outside the park. The report also referred to the sales of "separate small parcels and tracts" of land taking place under Chapter 475 of the Laws of 1887; with one of the tracts sold in the Adirondacks being a not-so-small 3,673 acres. As far as the Catskills were concerned, the most important part of the report was a recommendation to provide $50,000 to acquire "forest land situated within the counties of Greene, Ulster, Delaware and Sullivan, at a price not exceeding one dollar and fifty cents per acre …" The inclusion of funding for the Catskills, said the Commission, was because the 1885 law "establishing the Forest Preserve, contemplated a reservation in the Catskills …. and not without good reason." This good reason was that state ownership was necessary to protect "the watersheds of our great rivers" and because "the wooded slopes of the Hudson watershed demand special consideration." In making the first written reference to a Catskill Park, the Commission said, "But there are other important reasons for the establishment of a forest park in the Catskills." These other important reasons were that the Catskill Forest Preserve "is in close proximity to the great cities of New York and Brooklyn and many cities along the Hudson. It is easily accessible to three-fourths of the population of the State … It is a favorite spot with the vast population of New York and Brooklyn on account of its accessibility, cheap railroad fare, and desirable accommodations for people of moderate means."

Chapter 707 of the Laws of 1892 created the Adirondack Park and defined it to be, "All land now owned, or which may hereafter be acquired by the state within" certain listed towns in the counties of Hamilton, Essex, Franklin, Herkimer, St. Lawrence and Warren, and stated that the state lands within the park were to "be forever reserved … for the free use of all the people." Private land was not included in this first definition of the Adirondack Park, and the boundary was primarily for the purpose of specifying an area of the Adirondacks where state land acquisitions should be concentrated. The law repeated most of the provisions of the bill recommended a year earlier by the Forest Commission, including the authority to sell Forest Preserve lands throughout the Adirondacks (but not the Catskills), and also lease lands for private camps and cottages. Governor Roswell Flower, in fact, thought that the State’s judicious sale of timber and leases should pay for the maintenance of the Preserve. The new law did repeal Chapter 475 of the Laws of 1887, allowing land exchanges. The law unfortunately did not include the previously recommended funding or authorization for acquiring Forest Preserve lands in the Catskills.

A minor consolation to the Catskills was Chapter 356 of the Laws of 1892, which provided $250 to the Forest Commission "for completing the public path leading to the summit of Slide mountain, Ulster County, included within the preserve …" Townsend Cox, still one of the commissioners, must have hoped the funding would put the "public path" in better shape than when he had traveled it back in 1886. An 1893 budget bill (Chapter 726) provided $1,000, "For the expenses of examination of title and survey of lands owned by the state on Slide Mountain in Ulster County and other parts of the Catskills …" The $250 "public path" money may not seem of much importance, but it was the first legislation to authorize a recreational trail and is the point of beginning of the present and extensive trail system throughout the Adirondacks and Catskills. The Catskills had a first after all!

The 1893 Forest Commission recognized that the $50,000 recommended for the Catskills in 1892 hadn’t survived the legislative process. They didn’t believe it proper to continue to discuss "the Adirondack wilderness to the utter exclusion of the interests of the Catskills." They thought some effort should be made to make "a solid tract of … these holdings … in scattered lots … by the purchase of additional lands, in order that they can be brought under some systematic management. … We believe that it would be well to acquire 100,000 acres in the immediate vicinity of the lands mentioned." Accordingly, the Commission recommended a bill to purchase "sixty thousand acres" in the Catskills "at a price not exceeding one dollar and fifty cents per acre …" As noted, this recommendation did not succeed either.

The Forest Commission and the State Legislature proposed and enacted laws in 1892 and 1893 that liberalized, weakened, and capitalized on the Forest Preserve, allowing the leasing, timbering, and building of new roads on state lands. These facts did not escape the general public, and the citizens of the State lost all faith in the Legislature and the Forest Commission and became incensed over the increased mismanagement of the State’s wilderness areas – surely the time was right for a new program to be established. Governor Flower was also disappointed with the current state of Forest Preserve affairs, unhappy with both law and administration. He did not agree that public lands should be sold, and advocated for a well-planned and well-funded acquisition program. He called for state controls on private lumbering, and he asked that administrators of the Forest Preserve be "active, capable and honest men."

The public reached the limit of its patience, and in response to the repeated abuses in the management of the Adirondack Forest Preserve (such abuses were less common in the Catskills), mostly authorized by existing laws, a contingent of private individuals and organizations sought to assure the perpetuation of the Forest Preserve by giving it constitutional protection. They planned to address the issue in the State’s Constitutional Convention of 1894. In the early days of the Convention no mention was made of forest preservation and no committee was appointed to study the issue, however behind the scenes some independent groups were at work on the issue. The New York Board of Trade and Transportation and the Brooklyn Constitution Club had opposed the Forest Preserve laws of 1893, but were unsuccessful in keeping that legislation from being passed. The groups then resolved to ensure meaningful preservation of the Adirondacks through the State Constitution, and had the issue presented in Albany. They outlined to the Convention the various abuses that had been allowed to continue within the Preserve, all of which were legal but certainly not in accordance with the wishes of the citizens of the State. They publicly announced that it was their intention to protect the Forest Preserve by having this protection made part of the constitution rather than leaving it in the hands of changing legislatures and inept forest commissions. A special five-member Committee on State Forest Preservation, chaired by New York City attorney David McClure, was established to recommend action to protect the northern woods.

Mr. McClure and other contemporaries such as Lewis County delegate Charles Mereness and Syracuse delegate William Goodelle urged the State legislature to think of the protection of New York’s forestland as an inexpensive and sound investment. They pointed to millions of dollars being allocated by the wealthy state for things such as improvement and expansion of the State Capitol buildings, maintenance of waterways, and even World’s Fair exhibits, but very little for forest preservation and the employment of wardens and foresters. They urged timely action to purchase and protect as much forestland as possible in the Adirondacks and Catskills. In his address to the Constitutional Convention, Mr. McClure stated that, "First of all we should not permit the sale of one acre of land. We should keep all we have. We should not exchange our lands – in an exchange the State is in danger of obtaining the worst of the taxing – and there is no necessity why we should part with any of our lands. We should not sell a tree or a branch of one. Some people may think in the wisdom of their scientific investigations that you can make the forests better by thinning out and selling to lumbermen some of the trees regardless of the devastation, the burnings and stealing that follow in the lumberman’s track. But I say to you, gentlemen, no man has yet found it possible to improve on the ways of nature. In the primeval forest when the tree falls it is practically dead and where it falls it is a protection to the other trees; it takes in the moisture through its bark and rottenness and diffuses it down and into the soil … If our action here is practically unanimous, as I believe it will be, it will probably be followed by action on the part of the Legislature looking to the purchase of more forest lands. We can buy those lands for a trifle … Finally, the Legislature should purchase all of the forest lands, both in the Adirondacks and Catskills, not now owned by the State, and should preserve them, even though it costs millions of dollars to do it. The millions so invested will be well spent."

On September 15, 1894 the voting members of the constitutional convention passed the proposal for Forest Preserve protection under the constitution by a unanimous vote of 112-0. The Forest Preserve protection language was grouped with other changes suggested for the constitution, and in November the voters of the State passed the entire new constitution by a vote of 410,697 to 327,402 in the 1894 general election. A new article VII addressing the Forest Preserve was inserted into the revised and adopted Constitution, and included the wording, "The lands of the State, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed." These two sentences completely did away with every abuse that had heretofore been legally perpetrated on the Forest Preserve. The exchange of lands was done away with; the sale of state lands was stopped; the leasing of small camp lots was discontinued; no more railroad grants would be made; and the timber on the state holdings would remain forevermore. The new state constitution went into effect on January 1, 1895. From this day forward, decisions regarding the Forest Preserve would be made by the People of the State and each new law pertaining to the Preserve would have to undergo the test of constitutionality. The people of the State had made certain that the administration of the Forest Preserve would be their responsibility and that any future decisions affecting the Preserve would be made by them. Although not included in the controversies that raged beforehand, the Catskill Forest Preserve has enjoyed the benefits of this provision ever since.

A newly appointed "board of fisheries, game, and forest" was empowered in 1885 to purchase additional Forest Preserve lands, but also to issue permits or leases for cutting softwood timber and lay out paths and roads. Thus, within a few months after the adoption of constitutional provision for Article VII, the Legislature was at work establishing the uses or concepts of forest and game management and recreational development, contrary to the basic concept of forest preservation in a natural state. It also only took a few months before the first constitutional challenge came along. In 1895, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the leasing of five-acre campsites on lands of the Forest Preserve, the exchange of State-owned lands outside the Adirondack Park for private lands inside the Park, Continue reading

Environmental groups sue over power corridor

HARRISBURG, PA. — If the massive power line proposed for our region ever gets built, it won’t be because no one tried to stop it.
Eleven regional and national environmental organizations have joined the growing opposition to the federal ruling that would allow power lines like New York Regional Interconnect to bypass state approval.
Those groups – including Sullivan County’s Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Civil War Preservation Trust – said yesterday that they will sue the Department of Energy over its recent designation of a mid-Atlantic National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor, which includes most of New York state and all of Sullivan and Orange counties. These areas could be sliced by the 190-mile-long NYRI power line stretching from Utica to New Windsor.
The groups say the DOE violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act by failing to study the “potential harmful impacts of the corridor on air quality, wildlife, habitat and other natural resources.” They’re asking the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania to force the DOE to complete an environmental impact statement on the corridor.
Pennsylvania has already sued the DOE, and several states, including New York, have voiced opposition. The environmental groups plan to file the suit Monday.

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Mountainkeeper challenges Energy Department in Court, January 12, 2008

Groups challenge Energy Department’s Mid-Atlantic Corridor designation

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Casinos Rejected from the Phoenicia Times, January 17, 2008

No Casinos
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne rejected the proposals of two American Indian tribes to operate casinos in Sullivan County earlier this month, effectively killing the idea of gambling in the Catskills and drawing complaints from various pro-casino factions in the region and state, including the Governor. For the casinos to move forward, Kempthorne said he would need to authorize the placement of off-Indian reservation land in trust at the two sites. He refused to do that.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe wants to create a casino at Monticello Raceway, and the Stockbridge Munsee Tribe has been developing plans for a gaming hall in Bridgeville.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the state Legislature and then-Gov. George Pataki approved the creation of a total of three Indian-run casinos in Ulster and Sullivan counties as a way to boost state revenue. But final approval of the gaming halls rests with the interior secretary. There currently is no plan on the table for a casino in Ulster County, though towns is the southern part of the county have expressed interest in becoming home to one. And former County Ligislative Chairman Ward Todd went to contract for one during his tenure in office… although the matter was later allowed to lapse.
Both Congressman Maurice Hinchey and State Sen. John Bonacic said the presence of casinos could breathe new life into the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
and criticized Kempthorne’s ruling.
Officials at Empire Resorts, which owns Monticello Gaming and Raceway, held out hope following the decision, stating that they would continue to look at “every opportunity to realize the promise of jobs and economic development for the people of Sullivan County.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has opposed development of Native American casinos in Sullivan County, Monday, said the decision by US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne not to approve them was “a major victory” for the people of the Catskills and New York State and noted that it is unlikely that there would be a reversal of that decision any time soon.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is concerned about the impact the casinos would have on Route 17 traffic, air quality and new development impacting the quality of life in the Catskills.
“This is a tremendous victory for Catskills residents who have fought to preserve the quality of life in our region,” read a statement from Catskill Mountainkeeper, a new regional organization brought together to fight the issue. “This is a great opportunity for us to leave behind the divisive battle over casinos that has divided communities for so long and look to economic development we can all get behind.”
Meanwhile, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has announced that it has filed a suit against Kempthorne seeking to overturn his decision, alleging the secretary’s decision is arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, has no basis in the law, and constitutes an abuse of his position as secretary.

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