Letter to the Editor: Open Letter to DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd about the planned Ashokan Trail

To Emily Lloyd, Commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection:

We are writing to thank you for working in cooperation with the Ulster County Legislature and Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to bring a multipurpose trail, with parking, stormwater upgrades, and other related support features, to the Ulster & Delaware corridor (U&D Corridor) along the northern bank of the Ashokan Reservoir. The newly signed “Ashokan Trail” agreement (MOA) between the New York City Department of Environment (DEP) and Ulster County promises new and important access for the public along an 11.5 mile segment of the corridor next to the Ashokan, while preserving Ulster County’s perpetual railroad right-of-way and providing enhanced environmental protection for New York City’s drinking water supply.

We appreciate the participation of the DEP in public reviews of potential uses in the corridor going back decades, and we understand and endorse the conclusion provided in writing as part of a county-wide planning study in 2005 that the DEP can accommodate either train use or trail use in this segment of the U&D Corridor along the Ashokan Reservoir — but not both. We accept and appreciate the concrete stipulations contained in the MOA between NYCDEP & Ulster County providing $2.5 million dollars in direct grants to Ulster County that may only be used to build the trail: “the funds provided by DEP are designated for projects that provide watershed protection, and can only be used for building the trail, which will meet or exceed watershed protection standards and address localized erosion issues.” (NYCDEP press release: 12/13/2013)

The environmental constraints in the Ashokan segment of the U&D Corridor are similar to but more extensive than constraints in other sections of the corridor. Between Basin Road (Milepost 10.0) and Boiceville (Milepost 21.5), there are extensive stretches, including on top of the Glenford Dike, where the railroad tracks run within 100 feet of the Reservoir. In one area, the tracks run on a very narrow (less than 20-foot wide) causeway, with the reservoir’s drinking water for over 9 million people in New York City held on both sides of the causeway. Since the tourist train currently leasing the corridor has suffered derailments, both at its operations in Kingston as well as at its site in Mount Tremper and Phoenicia, we cannot imagine anyone advocating for diesel locomotives running over that causeway, nor on the Glenford Dike nor over the Esopus Creek in Boiceville.

The results of a recent privately commissioned professional preliminary planning study for the Ashokan Trail confirm the water supply protection hurdles and environmental infeasibility of maintaining rail along with trail next to the Reservoir. Attempting to preserve tracks while constructing a trail compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act would involve the disruption and movement of many, many tons of earth and the destruction and removal of thousands of trees, along with their root systems, which are critical to soil stabilization and erosion control.

As part of the transition to a trail, we expect to work with the DEP to remove miles of degrading and degraded toxic creosote-laden ties. In addition, removal of track in this section of the corridor will lead to improved drainage and stormwater management going forward.

Support for the Ashokan Trail Agreement is enthusiastic and growing, as demonstrated by both Ulster County residents and visitors. In less than two weeks prior to the Legislature’s vote on the Ashokan MOA on May 19, 2015, more than twelve hundred people signed our online petition supporting approval of the Ashokan MOA; of these 80% (1000) of signers are residents of Ulster County. In addition, during the same time period over 250 influential local business owners, professionals and residents endorsed the Ashokan Trail proposal (see attached Letter of Support). When the Ulster County Legislature approved the MOA with a strong, bipartisan majority, they did so before a standing room-only crowd overwhelmingly supporting the Ashokan Trail. We believe all this already visible support represents just the “tip of the iceberg” and will prove to be only a fraction of the support the Trail will see once construction begins.

We look forward to seeing residents of Ulster County, as well as visitors, using this section of the restored corridor, free of charge year-round, without permit, for healthy, enjoyable active recreation. We appreciate your cooperation in providing an environmentally suitable surface that nonetheless provides for wheelchair access and for use by people pushing strollers and riding bicycles. Indeed, we expect people of all ages to enjoy the Ashokan Trail and to help improve and protect what is sure to be a wonderful and incredibly beautiful asset.

We congratulate you and the DEP for finding a way to open the northern banks of the Ashokan Reservoir to increased public access in a manner consistent with your mandate to protect the drinking water supply for New York City, and we look forward to working with you to make this great trail a reality.

Sincerely yours,

Friends of the Catskill Mountain Rail Trail


Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL – Senior Research Director, Catskill Mountainkeeper (kathy@catskillmountainkeeper.org)
Kevin Smith – Chairman of the Board of Directors, Woodstock Land Conservancy (kevindsmith.wlc@gmail.com)