Read our interview with Jeff Senterman, the Executive Director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, to learn about conservation and economic development efforts as well as the unveiling of new exhibits and attractions at the Catskills Visitor Center.
Jeff Senterman is the Executive Director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville, NY, a member of the Board of Directors for the American Hiking Society, the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Jeff graduated with a degree in Environmental Science from Lyndon State College and worked for many years as an Environmental Planner in New England before coming back to New York and the Catskills in the nonprofit sector.
SD: What is the number one issue The Catskill Center is concentrating on?
JS: To me climate change is the number one issue and the greatest challenge of our time. How would the Catskills look like in 2030 or 2050? I struggle to understand that, and work towards aligning The Catskill Center’s programs so that we can protect the natural environment while at the same time support a sustainable human environment. Unfortunately, certain communities will lose sustainability over the next few decades not because of drought and fires like we see in the West, but because of flooding. Events like Hurricane Irene will become more common and will displace communities located in floodplains. So, climate change is the lens that we are looking through to build sustainable communities.
SD: What solutions are you envisioning?
JS: Building infrastructure that is resilient to flooding is one. The bridges that are being built now are at much higher elevation for this reason. Also, when various entities buy properties located in floodplains to clear the space, relocation options should be put in place for people whose homes are being bought so these people do remain in the Catskill Region and don’t leave the area altogether. We at the Catskill Center are always working to create connections and build partnerships that advance viable ideas.
SD: How about the wildlife?
JS: We are already seeing species whose habitats are endangered in other parts of the country migrating towards the Catskill Region. As climate changes, more species will be looking for new habitats. We are trying to understand these migration patterns and create an island of biodiversity that connects with the Appalachians and bridges into the Adirondacks. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Open Space Institute are working to protect the routes for species to migrate.
SD: The Catskill Center serves four counties – Ulster, Sullivan, Greene, and Delaware which are located in different Regional Economic Development Councils: Ulster and Sullivan are located in Mid-Hudson, Greene in the Capital Region, and Delaware in the Southern Tier. Each of these regional councils develop their own strategic plans with different economic priorities. The Catskill Region seems to be split between three different economic frameworks: Mid-Hudson, the Capital Region, and the Southern Tier. How do you at the Catskill Center reconcile this and work to support the entire Catskill Region?
JS: This has been a difficult conversation. The Catskills are not recognized as their own region and that is a detriment to our area. It’s the same with the NYS DEC and NYS DOT – various Catskills counties are assigned to different regions and that makes coordinating efforts a challenge. The Catskills have been struggling to build and sell a regional identity for decades. There is a lack of cooperation unlike what you see in other tourist destinations like Vermont. We at the Catskill Center have been working on forging and promoting a regional identity that the tourists and the residents alike can make sense of. The Catskills Visitor Center in Mt. Tremper is representative of such efforts.
SD: Let’s talk about the Catskills Visitor Center.
JS: The Catskills Visitor Center opened in 2015 as a partnership between the Catskill Center and the DEC. It was initially called Catskills Interpretive Center. It took us sometime to figure out how to run the Center, what works, and what needs improvement. Through the advocacy work of the Catskill Center, we managed to secure funds in the State Budget that are specifically designated for the Visitor Center, both in 2020 and 2021.
SD: I know you have some exciting news about the Visitor Center.
JS: In 2017 we began work on renovating the interior of the Visitor Center to include exhibits showcasing the natural assets, the history, and the culture of the Catskill Mountains. We secured a Smart Growth grant from the DEC for scoping and planning efforts. We hired a consultant. And we are now in the final stages of construction. The project was stalled in 2020 due to the pandemic. But we are happy to announce that the exhibits will be completed and open to the public on Saturday, September 4th over the Labor Day weekend.
SD: What will the exhibits include?
JS: They will include the geological history of the region, current flora and fauna, the watershed, the communities, and the historic arc from Native Americans through the era of the Grand Hotels in the late 1800s to the Catskills of today. The exhibits tell the story of the Catskills. There is also a rolling mural in the style of the Hudson River School that summarizes the story. We think these exhibits interpret the Catskills in a way that is accessible to anyone.
SD: What other attractions does the Visitor Center include?
JS: There are two miles of walking trails around the Center, parts of which are fully ADA accessible. We installed a Fire Tower with spectacular views. Across the street there is access to the Esopus River. Let’s say you drive from downstate, and you only have one hour to experience the Catskills, the Visitor Center will give you that experience.
SD: With the Covid restrictions in place, what trends have you been noticing that are here to stay?
JS: For a year and a half we worked completely remotely. Now we have a flexible work schedule with some remote work and some office work. There is more flexibility in both scheduling and utilizing the space. The pandemic has taught us to be flexible. Hosting meetings on Zoom has increased participation. Our workshops and roundtables used to have 15 people in attendance, usually the same ones. Now we have around 200 people attending via Zoom. It’s also more environmentally friendly because we don’t have to drive that much.
SD: Final thoughts?
JS: Through its advocacy efforts the Catskill Center creates opportunities. We assess the region’s needs, and that’s what we advocate for when we go to Albany. We have aspirational goals looking towards the future, but at the same time we focus on objectives that are reasonable and doable.
Founded in 1969, the Catskill Center’s mission is to protect and foster the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of the Catskill Region. Learn more at catskillcenter.org.