Eroding values – problems at Kaaterskill Falls 9-11-20

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Eroding Values

On the Rocks, The Woodstock Times 1998

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


As historical geologists, we do not have to face very many serious ecological issues. None of the fossil species we deal with are endangered; none of the environments we study are threatened. They all disappeared about 400 million years. As writers about modern geology, things are a bit different. It’s only natural for a geologist to take a very long-term view of things, and so it has been that, in traveling about in the Catskills, we do sometimes come across some developing problems. And, surprisingly, that includes the Catskill Park, the forever wild preserve that the state began to put aside more than a hundred years ago.

Not surprisingly, the forest preserve attracts people who, for the most part, have a real sense of the value of this land. Few would deliberately do harm to this landscape. The trouble is that there are so very many of us. The most serious example is at Kaaterskill Falls. The site is blessed with a wonderful scenery and cursed by the thousands of visitors who come every year to see it. The best approach to the falls is to take the yellow trail up from Bastion Falls below. Nobody intends to do harm, and nobody does much harm, but the traffic is so heavy that the wear and tear on the Bastion Falls trail has really been showing for quite a while now and it’s getting much worse. The path is just plain beat up.


It may be worse from above. Many people choose to descend into the clove from the top of the falls. This takes them down a very steep, and erosion prone, slope. People tend to slip and slide as they struggle down the steep clay surface. The damage has been very bad there. Again, it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s a collective and cumulative effect.

There’s a conflict of values here. The land is owned by the people and open to the public. The New York State Constitution guarantees that all of us can walk anywhere we want to in the forest preserve. Nobody has the right to tell you or me where we can or can’t go. Such restrictions could never be enforced anyway. But, in exercising our rights, we harm the very land that we have chosen to save. But, in fact, throughout almost all of the preserve the damage has been minimal, and human nature being what it is, almost none of us take responsibility for the very little bit of damage that each of us does.

Few of us can see into the long-term future and appreciate the damage that is underway. but a geologist can, and there are areas where the damage has gotten so bad that something must be done. Inevitably, other locations will share the same fate. It’s best we develop strategies now so we can deal with these problems as they become manifest.

Which gets us back to Kaaterskill Falls which is certainly the place to start. The State has put up signs asking people to be careful, but that is unlikely to be of much help. After all, it’s not me who is the problem, it’s all of those other people. An obvious approach is to build a wooden staircase. Back in the hotel days there was one here and tourists had an easy time of it visiting the falls. But this is a nature preserve and, in theory, we are not supposed to be building unnatural things here.

That’s the kind of problem all preserves eventually must face. We have to choose, and we are afraid the choice is forced upon us. We can’t have a perfect preserve and allow everyone to enjoy it at the same time without a few compromises. We do hope that the day will soon come when a staircase at Kaaterskill Falls will allow people to visit the site while minimizing the damage. There is some precedent. There is a fine wooden staircase at Mine Kill Falls and it’s a nice looking one. That site is not suffering the kind of damage we lament at Kaaterskill Falls.

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