Excavators Ply New York’s Upper Beaverkill River
by Tony Bonavist
Perhaps no other river in the United States is as famous in the annals of ﬂy ﬁshing history, as New York’s Beaverkill. It has been touted and written about for as long as ﬂy ﬁshing writers have put pen to paper. And is considered along with the Neversink, the birthplace of American ﬂy ﬁshing.
Portions of the lower River, from its conﬂuence with the Willowemoc, near Roscoe, are managed as no kill and are readily accessible to the general public as a result of the NYS Public Fishing Rights program. The ﬁshery is managed and maintained by annual plants of hatchery brown trout. The ﬁshing is very good, but can decline as ﬂows drop and temperatures rise durning the summer. There is limited recruitment of wild stocks due to low ﬂows in the tributaries during the fall.
The upper river from its source at Balsam lake, high in the Catskill’s, is a entirely diﬀerent story with a completely diﬀerent environment. Here, the Beaverkill, ﬂows thorough pristine hemlock and hardwood forests, which help maintain water quality and cool temperatures throughout the summer. This part of the river supports one of the remaining indigenous, brook trout populations in the Catskill’s. But for a few miles around the Beaverkill State campsite, this reach is in and has been in private hands since the late 1880’s. There are about 26 miles of river involved here, and by and large, the owners have provided exceptional stewardship, maintaining the river and surrounding uplands as the ﬁrst settlers found them, so many years ago. That is until recently.
In 2015, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), issued permits to two corporations, that own several miles of the the upper Beaverkill. Those permits allowed contractors, to locate multiple structures in the river, in theory to improve trout habitat. As a result 4/5 miles of pristine, stream channel were reconﬁgured from natural, to man made, dramatically altering the river bed.
The applications for these projects were reviewed by DEC staﬀ in accordance with the requirements set forth in SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review) after which a negative declaration was issued by that agency, listing the projects as “Unlisted Actions which would not have a signiﬁcant impact on the environment.” “A coordinated review was not performed for all applications.” I do not know if the regional ﬁsheries staﬀ did a complete review of the applications. If not, that would be ironic and unfortunate, in that the biologists would have the most knowledge and expertise about the Beaverkill, its habitat and the impacts the in-stream work could have on the river! A Letter to the regional oﬃce, seeking information, was not answered.
So here we have two applicants, applying for three permits, designed to place a multitude of structures in the undisturbed, relatively stable waters of the upper Beaverkill River! (Sections ﬂow through formations of bedrock.) Mecca in the eyes of ﬂy ﬁshers. How did this happen? There are, in the ﬂy ﬁshing community, organizations, that have access to private water, who are sometimes trying to “improve things and make ﬁshing better or easier.” Enter the stream improvement professionals or as the they are now know as: “ﬂuvial geomorhphologists,” pitching their plans to enhance aquatic ecosystems. I’m guessing that the members of the upper Beaverkill organizations, either contacted or were contacted by the company they ultimately retained to implement the projects. Stream habitat improvement programs were historically carried out by state and federal ﬁsheries agencies, these days more and more projects are being implemented by consulting ﬁrms and contractors promoting aquatic habitat enhancement. Sometimes the improvements work; sometimes they don’t. Those that do are usually found in low gradient, low velocity rivers. Almost all, need annual maintenance. Those of us that know the Catskill terrain, are aware that rivers like the upper Beavertail, though reasonably stable, are in high gradient, mountainous regions. So when heavy rainfall hits the headwaters, ﬂows increase rapidly and reach ﬂood stage quickly. Man made structures stand little chance of staying put, under those conditions. Case in point. During Hurricane Irene, ﬂows in the Esopus Creek, exceeded 75,000, CFS, records, for that river! (Average is about 600 CFS.) As a result the bridge at Cold Brook and the railroad trestle below the ﬁve Arches Bridges were washed away. The volume of water and associated velocities, where so high that railroad tracks bent like pretzels. Under those conditions, what are the chances that man engineered, habitat improvement structures will survive?
I’m told that in one mile of river, in the project area, multiple structures were placed, and that large excavators traversed almost the entire stream bed, along that section! What we have here is, man and his machines, assaulting the bottom of the Beaverkill, adding structure, in the name of trout habitat improvement to make ﬁshing better. Is that likely to occur, in my view and the view of others that know the river intimately, the answer is no. And who knows what impact the excavators had on the aquatic insect community and coming year hatches?
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 with the addition of hatchery stocks. Is the ﬁshing easy, no, but the ﬁshing opportunity is excellent. So why one has to ask, why would the States Natural Resource agency, charged with protection of the environment, as part of its mission, issue permits allowing organizations and contractors to work in an undisturbed, fairly stable river 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 based on the information they received from the consultant, that the projects were a good idea and that they and the river would beneﬁt. I also believe the DEC staﬀ that reviewed the applications and issued the permits, followed all the guidelines associated with the SEQR process. So in essence they “technically” did their jobs. But did they? Sometimes, it is necessary to look beyond the “cookbook” of agency regulations, and at the resource in question, take a step back, and consider whether permitting contractors 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. It is also important to keep in mind that by authorizing projects of this scope, the State has set a precedent. What happens if and when the next application is submitted for a similarly large project on another high quality river? Public hearings must 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 remain undisturbed, it’s New York’s Beaverkill.