The Catskill Mountains - Farms and Forests, Side by Side

Our New York study site lies in the Catskill Mountains about 100 miles northwest of New York City. Encompassing more than six counties and over 6,000 square miles of mountains, forests, rivers, and farmland, the Catskills are often referred to as America's First Wilderness because scholars trace the beginnings of the environmental conservation movement to this beautiful area. With almost three dozen mountain peaks over 3,500 feet in elevation and six major river systems that annually attract the world's most devoted fly fishermen, the Catskills are an ecological resource of significant importance. The region's rugged terrain has contributed over the years to a sense of the area as remote wilderness, in spite of its nearness to the country's largest population center.

The two most prominent features of the Catskill region today are the nearly 300,000 acres of public Forest Preserve land located largely within the Catskill Park, and the 1,584 square miles of catchment known as the Catskill/Delaware Watersheds that provide 90 percent of the New York City water supply. This unfiltered water supply has been made possible largely because in 1885 the New York State Legislature established the Catskill Forest Preserve to be set aside as "Forever Wild." In 1904, the Catskill Park was created to establish an imaginary boundary, called the "blue line," around the Forest Preserve and private land. Together the Preserve and the Park have grown over the years to approximately 700,000 acres, of which about 60 percent is private land.

But this is also a working landscape, and the coexistence of wilderness and human society in the Catskills is considered a grand and visionary landscape experiment. Regional farms and forests have provided livelihood to families for centuries. Nineteenth century Catskill tanneries, for instance, used the tannin-rich bark from hemlock trees to "tan" hides; these tanneries worked with imported South American hides to supply most of the saddles used in the Civil War. The furniture making industry harvested the remaining trees, and the resulting cleared land was often sold for 50 cents an acre to mountain farmers. Furniture makers, lumberjacks, charcoal producers, hoop makers (hoops were used to hold barrels together), and wood acid manufacturers all exploited the Catskill forest.

Today, the cleared valleys and hillsides have returned to forest and forestry remains important on private lands, primarily as a source of lumber. However, that landscape is slowly being carved into ever-smaller parcels of land, and the combined effects of New York City sprawl and regional development might have significant impacts on the long term viability of forestry in this area. In this study, we analyzed the visible landscape changes over the last 11 years and projected those trends into the future. It is our hope that this analysis and the tool of land use change modeling will assist communities as they plan for a future that meets their vision and satisfies the multitude of regional stakeholders without losing the character of this treasured landscape.

We wish to thank the following agencies for much of the information found here:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development


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