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.