August 29, 2009, Albany Times Union: Op-Ed - Casinos too risky in Catskills by Mark Izeman and Ramsay Adams

Casinos too risky in Catskills
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First published: Saturday, August 29, 2009
The nation's top Indian Affairs official, Larry Echo Hawk, visited one of New York's most scenic and ecologically distinctive regions -- the Catskill Mountains -- on Wednesday. He is being asked to consider two widely contrasting visions for securing economic vitality today and into the future...


Mr. Echo Hawk met with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and other proponents who are asking for federal support to build a chain of giant Las Vegas-style casinos in the Catskills that could radically alter the landscape of the region.

He also met with citizens and representatives from prominent environmental, civic and business groups -- including our two organizations -- who are proposing an alternative, sustainable vision for the region's future. Our aim is to cultivate economic development by creating new green businesses and jobs -- from farming and forestry to tourism and education -- that are compatible with the proud history and unique resources of the Catskills.

The Catskills ecosystem encompasses the 700,000-acre Catskill Park and half of the state's drinking water. It's home to hundreds of farms, world-renowned fishing streams and mountains that attract visitors from across the country.

But giant casinos will mean giant increases in traffic and degraded air quality in Sullivan County and surrounding communities. Even a single facility could cripple the already-congested Route 17. Casinos will also trigger ancillary sprawl, forever altering the character of the region and threatening the nearby water supply. One leading project, which includes a 580,000 square-foot casino, 750-room hotel and 9,500 parking spaces, would be built directly on the banks of the Neversink River, the birthplace of American fly-fishing.

Instead of massive casinos, we should encourage sustainable economic development consistent with the character of the region, such as the hugely successful Bethel Woods and the Center for Discovery, the largest private employer in Sullivan County. We should promote small tourist hotels, hiking, camping and fishing, and nurture new green energy and clean tech businesses that can provide a decent living wage.

We can expand universities in the region, such as a campus of the New School, so that students and professors can study this unique ecosystem and frequent the businesses in Roscoe, Jeffersonville, Monticello and other hamlets.

Our organizations do not take a stance on gambling, and strongly support Indian sovereignty as well as tribal self-sufficiency and economic development. But in recent years, numerous casino proposals were advanced in the Catskills and nationwide without the environmental reviews required by law. It's extremely troubling that these projects continue to move forward without fully considering their environmental and community impacts.

Schumer has continued to push the federal government to bring casino gambling to the Catskills, claiming near-universal support in the region. This is simply not true. This claim ignores all of the individuals who have spent a lifetime building its infrastructure, protecting its reservoirs and safeguarding its historic beauty for future generations. And it ignores the many of us who are continuing this legacy through a new sustainable economic plan for the Catskills.

We would welcome the opportunity to work with Congress and the Obama administration in building a future for the Catskills that we can all share in, and be proud of. And we hope Mr. Echo Hawk saw firsthand the real progress that is being made every day toward this vision. It is time to change course and embrace a different vision for revitalizing the unique and irreplaceable Catskills region.

Mark A. Izeman is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ramsay Adams is executive director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper.

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