Dan Hust | Democrat
CATSKILL MOUNTAINKEEPR PROGRAM Director Wes Gillingham in front of the organization’s offices in Youngsville.
Catskill Mountainkeeper gaining notoriety
By Dan Hust
Editor’s Note: The following Q&A represents the first in a periodic series focusing on the organizations that have rallied to promote, oppose, learn about, negotiate with, and regulate the locally burgeoning natural gas industry.
Save for a brief introduction, the format for each article will be question-and-answer, allowing these groups to speak for themselves.
If you have a recommendation for a group we should interview, feel free to contact Editor Frank Rizzo or Senior Staff Writer Dan Hust at 845-887-5200 or editor@ sc-democrat.com.
YOUNGSVILLE A year ago, Catskill Mountainkeeper Program Director Wes Gillingham wondered how he was going to get the infant non-profit advocacy organization’s name out there.
The prospect of natural gas drilling in the area did it for him.
Now he’s hearing from people and press daily, asking what Mountainkeeper knows, what its goals are, how it operates requests that often revolve around the extraction of gas from the Marcellus Shale bed.
It’s so dominated the agenda that Gillingham has reluctantly had to put other environmental issues on the back burner.
The Youngsville office staffed by Gillingham, Executive Director Ramsay Adams and Office Manager Beth Scullion is filled with maps, brochures, newspapers and folders, representing the enormous breadth of the gas issue.
Its windows look out on Route 52 and a community that will likely feel the effects of this profitable but controversial industry.
Take a look at how Gillingham and Mountainkeeper view it:
Q: What do you see as Catskill Mountainkeeper’s role as it pertains to the natural gas industry?
A: It was created to protect the Catskills, both to protect it from oversized developments that would historically change the course of the future of the Catskills and also get behind projects that would be really positive for the Catskills, whether they’re economic development initiatives or agricultural protection initiatives.
The gas drilling, obviously from the things that we have learned from the forum and what you have looked up about the potential impacts with this type of gas exploration this has huge implications far beyond environmental implications.
... This is exactly the kind of thing we need to get a handle on, as to what’s going to happen, how it’s going to change the area, [and] in this case where NYS regulations or town authority and/or the planning process and the negotiating process can help this community deal with this huge of an industrialization.
Q: What can Catskill Mountainkeeper uniquely contribute to this issue?
A: Our organization is set up to be intrinsically connected to other organizations. We have people from different environmental groups on our board so we’re connected to those organizations, which enables us to have resources and doors open to help with this process.
Just in the last six months, what we’ve been able to do in terms of setting up the forums, being involved in Albany on the regulatory and legislative process for a startup organization, it would be really hard to just get involved in that if they weren’t connected.
... Especially with this kind of issue, it takes all kinds of organizations. Catskill Mountainkeeper isn’t going to be the end-all answer to gas drilling. It’s going to be Catskill Mountainkeeper, it’s going to be Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy ... town councils, zoning boards, county legislators, the [county] planning department and the state regulatory agencies to all work together on something this huge.
Q: What concerns you most about this industry moving into the area?
A: The three things that are [of concern] to me are:
 the [hydrofracturing] process. What are the chemicals they’re using? Is it really a safe process? I think the only evidence to say it’s a safe process has been so far in New York State there hasn’t been a contamination, but has there been a systematic investigation of all the drilling sites where that’s happened?
...  Connected to that issue is the fracking fluids and the open pits. ... That’s a huge question for me, and maybe I have a personal connection to that, having dealt with the floods in 2006. The idea of all those settling ponds placed around the landscape and a significant rain event ...
 then another big issue for Catskill Mountainkeeper is, are NYS regulations up to par to deal with this and this new type of development? Then there’s the issue of the Catskill Park and the watershed. What is ... appropriate in the watershed and inside the blue line of the Catskill Park if development heads in those directions?
Q: When do you think you’ll have the answers you’re seeking?
A: [Laughing.] That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily have a timeline. I view this whole process as a long-term issue for this organization. We’ll be working on the gas drilling issue for many years. Hopefully as a community we’ll try some creative things, and they may or may not work.
Q: People are struggling to survive in Sullivan County. The gas industry represents a way to potentially better their lives financially. Can a balance be struck between the environmental and financial concerns?
A: I hope so. ... I mean, I struggle to pay taxes. I’m a large landowner, and I start planning now to save money for the tax bill coming in the fall.
One of the reasons I came back to this area after spending time in other places of the country is because of the unique ecological and community diversity here, and it’s a place I’ve been connected to my whole life.
... There are some positive impacts to this. If you look at the upper Green River valley [in Wyoming], they have some of the highest-paid teachers in the country because the gas companies throw money at the schools.
... The whole community has to come together, and that means landowners’ associations who are negotiating for leases need to be at the table with us and town supervisors and legislators, and we need to really figure out how to make this happen so that some people will be able to cash in because they want to they own the rights to gas and they want to sell those and get the monetary gain for that but that the development happens in a way that is least offensive to the whole region.
Q: Are you finding resistance or cooperation from local people and groups?
A: I’ve been really happy with the response we’ve gotten, especially from the forums. I’ve been contacted to go and meet with other groups and towns around the county.
One of the main things that we wanted to accomplish with the forums is to just wake people up that this is going to be happening. This isn’t the bucolic pipe in the edge of the pasture; this is a huge industrialization of the region.
I think there are a lot of people that have their eyes open now and are paying attention. ... I think all of us are looking at whether or not a statewide moratorium would make sense right now to really come up with some concrete plans for how this is going to develop.
Q: Since local moratoria on gas drilling are not expected to hold up in court, what do you think of a state moratorium?
A: If there are communities in the Marcellus region that really want to stop this process in the immediate, to plan for what’s going to happen and get a handle on how it develops and have an influence on the future of their communities, I almost think it’s the responsibility of the state to step in and make that moratorium legal, because the governor does have the ability to do that.
And if that’s what the communities are asking for, to support that in some way, I would see that as a reasonable request.
... I think he [Governor David Paterson] could put a moratorium on the Marcellus Shale development across the state or in certain areas, until those communities were able to come up to speed with how to plan for how it happens.
Q: What would you like people to do regarding this issue?
A: Staying abreast of what is happening, both through our website and various links to the issue. Keeping informed as to what’s happening will only work in the best interests of everyone.
If people are faced with the question of to lease or not, it does help it’s been shown over and over again to be part of a larger group, a landowners’ association of some form [or] at the very least talking to your direct neighbors and working with them.
... It would be in the best interests of their communities for all the people on the town boards to really take a defining role in this issue with the roads and potentially scheduling when operations can happen.
Q: Are you recommending people lease or not lease their properties for gas drilling?
A: That’s a private decision a landowner is going to make. I wouldn’t advise either way.
... I have no conflict with the idea of the large landowners’ association because that does help an individual landowner who’s not necessarily got the time to spend all of his waking hours researching natural gas leasing.
... So I support landowners’ associations in the fact that I think it helps out the individual and probably helps out the community in the long run if they’re negotiating for a really positive lease.
Q: Do you feel the local community is divided?
A: I think it’s divided in [that] there are people who would love to stop it and not have gas drilling come here at all, and there are people that are really excited, because they’re going to make quite a bit of money on it.
But I don’t feel in Sullivan County that people are pitted against each other around that issue.
Q: Do you see Catskill Mountainkeeper as a unifying force?
A: I would really hope so. I think we stand in a position to really help this situation. I know that’s what I’m going to be doing for the next however-many years.
... I would just hope that people look to us as an organization that can really help in this complicated process and not peg us as naysayers because our name is Catskill Mountainkeeper.
We want what’s best for the whole region it’s not just any one individual perspective. And for us this issue does go beyond the region. ... This is the largest natural gas deposit in the U.S. and it is also down the backbone of [one of] the last wild places left east of the Mississippi. For more information on Catskill Mountainkeeper, call 482-5400 or log on to www.catskill mountainkeeper.com.