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Cornell joins broad task force in NYC watershed recommendations

A grassroots consortium of landowners, loggers and forest industry representatives, working together with interested organizations and the Cornell Water Resources Institute, has issued 14 recommendations to protect the quality of New York City's drinking water by improving forest land and the forest-based economy of the city's upstate watersheds.

Demonstration forests, logger training and assistance for private landowners who follow forestry best-management practices are among the recommendations announced Dec. 12 by the Watershed Forest Ad Hoc Task Force in a ceremony at the Frost Valley YMCA Conference Center in Claryville, N.Y. The task force report was endorsed at the ceremony by Commissioner Joel A. Miele Sr. of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and by then-Commissioner Michael D. Zagata of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Clearly, the task force believes that forest land contributes to both water quality protection and rural economic viability," said John J. Schwartz, a Cornell water specialist with the New York State Water Resources Institute who worked with the task force and who helped write the report. "They feel that a locally managed, voluntary approach will keep public investments to a minimum, and that if prudent investments are made now, water-quality and economic problems of the future can be avoided."

Earlier, ongoing efforts by New York City to meet federal drinking water standards and avert installation of multi-billion-dollar filtration systems focused on agricultural land, which accounts for about 17 percent of the five-county watershed area west of the Hudson River. Unlike the watersheds of other major cities in the United States, the forests of New York City's water supply watersheds are predominately privately owned.

"Three-quarters of 1,580 square miles of land in the Catskill/Delaware watershed is forested. Yet, forests contribute the least amount of the pollution and are in fact a positive influence on the quality of New York City's water supply," said Charles N. Johnston, chair of the task force and vice president of Johnston & Rhodes Bluestone Co. in East Branch, N.Y. "Forests are an economic asset, providing jobs in the wood-products industry and income for landowners who might otherwise be tempted to sell their property for development."

The task force suggests an approach modeled on the first successful partnership between New York City and watershed landowners: the Watershed Agricultural Program, which is a locally managed, voluntary program to control agricultural pollution without compromising farm profitability. Funding to support a forestry program will be provided through the New York City Watershed Agreement.

The 75-member task force has been meeting regularly since December 1994 with administrative support and professional staff provided by the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell. During the past two years, the task force has contributed to discussions between the Coalition of Watershed Towns, New York governor's office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The task force believes that the dual role of the watershed forests -- including much that is owned by farmers and other private landowners -- should be maintained and enhanced," added Richard I. Coombe, chair of the Watershed Agricultural Council, which administers a voluntary management program for a land use that contributes a larger percentage of the pollution burden -- agriculture. "Properly managed forests are a preferred land use for water quality protection," he said. "Forests filter water and may actually utilize pollutants that otherwise would find their way to the water supply."

"The concerns of environmental and public health protection are compatible with economic development," wrote New York Gov. George E. Pataki in a letter to the task force. The governor called the recommendations "a blueprint for improving the economic future of forest landowners and the forest products industry" while continuing protection of drinking water for 9 million New Yorkers.


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