Ramsay Adams is Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Executive Director and Co-Founder. We met this week to talk about how he found his way to the Catskills, what inspired him to launch Mountainkeeper, and how he sees the role that people play in protecting our environment.
You can listen to our full conversation with Ramsay on Mountainkeeper’s Magic in the Mountains podcast, which is available on Spotify or Anchor.
What is your connection to the Catskills?
The story of how my family got to the Catskills is really a multigenerational tale. My grandparents grew up in farming families in Ireland, but my grandfather wasn’t drawn to farming and so the family farm was passed on to his older brother. He didn’t have many options staying in Ireland, so in the early 1900s he immigrated to America in search of opportunity. When he got to New York, he started out working on the docks in Brooklyn and doing handyman jobs like electrical work on the Empire State Building. Eventually he saved up enough cash to buy a boat ticket for my grandmother to join him in the U.S.
My dad and his siblings were born after World War II and, as the kids got older, the family decided they wanted to get out of the city, so they bought a farm on some rugged land up in Callicoon Center and the kids went to school in Roscoe. My dad went on to graduate from law school at Duke University and start the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1969, which was the same year I was born. I fell in love with the Catskills early on as a kid,and bought some land in the Beaverkill Valley as soon as I could.
What inspired you to start Catskill Mountainkeeper?
Mountainkeeper was established in 2006, and at that time the Catskills had been in economic limbo for the previous 20+ years. The Borscht-Belt resorts that were once really successful had gone out of business, and our region had fallen on very hard times because there just wasn’t much money flowing in. On the positive side, we didn’t have issues with land developers trying to build awful malls and mega developments like we do now. That changed in the early 2000s when developers started noticing how much untouched land there was in the Catskills, and this gold-rush mentality emerged. In particular, one group of developers wanted to build 6 casinos in Sullivan County and transform the Catskills into a major gambling hub on the same scale as Las Vegas.
My family has a legacy of farming and environmentalism, so with the help of my dad and the NRDC, I started to push back against this casino proposal. Around that time I met Wes Gillingham–now Mountainkeeper’s Associate Director–who was running a huge community supported agriculture operation. We teamed up and founded Catskill Mountainkeeper, and invited representatives from major environmental organizations like Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Open Space Institute, NRDC, etc. to join our board and develop strategies to oppose the casino project. Long story short, we succeeded and forced a compromise to build only 1 casino instead of 6.
What’s your advice for people who want to get involved in our work to protect the environment?
Don’t underestimate the power you have as an individual in your community. Get involved in local politics, go to zoning board meetings, take whatever actions you can at the local level. It might not feel like you're doing much, but trust me, you’re making a massive difference. The groups trying to sacrifice our region for profit thrive in the dark; if we don’t keep an eye on them they’ll do whatever they can get away with. We all need to stay vigilant when it comes to monitoring developers and industries that are trying to line their pockets at the cost of our climate and environment. Mountainkeeper has developed a lot of influence at the state level, but at the same time so much of what we do wouldn’t be possible without community involvement and grassroots efforts to protect our region. Above all, keep in touch. Tell us about your community’s concerns, and don’t hesitate to ask us for advice.