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Excavators ply New York’s Upper Beaverkill

In 2015, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued permits to two corporations that own portions of New York’s upper Beaverkill River. Those permits allowed contractors to place multiple structures in the river. As a result, four to five miles of pristine stream channel were reconfigured from natural to manmade, dramatically altering the river bed.

The applications for these projects were reviewed by DEC staff in accordance with the requirements set forth in the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) after which a negative declaration was issued. I don’t know if the regional fisheries staff conducted a complete review of the applications.

So here we have two applicants applying for permits that would provide for the placement of a multitude of structures in the undisturbed, relatively stable waters of the upper Beavertail River—Mecca in the eyes of fly fishers. How did this happen?

In the fly-fishing community there are organizations that have access to private water that are sometimes trying to “improve the habitat.” Stream habitat improvement programs were historically carried out by state and federal fisheries agencies, but these days, more and more projects are being implemented by consulting firms promoting aquatic habitat enhancement. These stream-improvement professionals, or as the they are now known, “fluvial geomorphologists,” pitch their plans to enhance aquatic ecosystems, and I’m guessing that the members of the upper Beaverkill organizations either contacted or were contacted by such a company.

Sometimes the improvements they come up with work; mostly they don’t. Almost all need annual maintenance. Those of us that know the Catskills are aware that the upper Beaverkill, though stable, is a high-gradient river. So when heavy rainfall hits the headwaters, flows increase rapidly and reach flood stage quickly. History has documented that man-made structures stand little chance of staying put under these conditions. I’m told that in one mile of the upper Beaverkill, multiple structures were placed and large excavators traversed almost the entire stream bed along that reach, all in the name of “habitat improvement.” Is that likely to result? In my view and the view of others that know the river intimately, the answer is “no.”

The upper Beaverkill includes a wonderful mix of pools, riffles and runs— at least the part that hasn’t been altered— providing an excellent fishery for wild brook and brown trout. So why would the state’s natural resource agency, charged with protection of aquatic ecosystems, issue permits allowing excavators into an undisturbed, wild trout fishery like the upper Beaverkill, the holy grail of America’s rivers? Was there outside pressure? I have no answer. I’m sure the applicants believed that the structures were a good idea and the fishery would benefit. I also believe the DEC staff that reviewed the applications followed all the guidelines associated with the SEQRA process. So they technically did their jobs. But did they in essence? Sometimes, it is necessary to look beyond the regulations, and at the resource in question, and consider whether permitting people to alter a pristine resource like the upper Beaverkill is philosophically correct. There needs to be accountability here, to ensure that applications for projects of this magnitude are more carefully scrutinized. Public hearings need to be held. Allowing tracked excavators to ply the waters of the upper Beaverkill is beyond the comprehension of all of us who believe that what nature provides is often best and shouldn’t be manipulated by the hand of man. If any river needs to be left undisturbed, it’s the upper Beaverkill.


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