HUNTER — State Department of Environmental Conservation officials are drafting new rules to ban cooking fires, loud music and thrill-seekers within the Kaaterskill Wild Forest, including the two-tier waterfall that attracts thousands of tourists annually.
The proposed regulations would prohibit all fires, including those from charcoal and gas grills and stoves; loud music in Kaaterskill Clove; alcohol in the Kaaterskill Clove and Falls area.
They would also prohibit hikers from venturing within 6 feet of the falls’ edge in the summer months, Forest Ranger Rob Dawson said at a town board meeting Tuesday.
The rules would include parts of Platte Clove, Kaaterskill Clove, Kaaterskill Falls and Colgate Lake, but not all the rules will apply to the four regions, Dawson said.
“Right now, I’m just writing regulations and tickets based on signage,” Dawson said, issuing fines for failure to comply with a DEC sign.
Signs reading ‘No fire’ and ‘No glass’ are posted throughout the popular picnic spots and roads, but on an average hot summer weekend, Dawson’s team issues about 20 tickets in an afternoon with fines up to $250, he said.
The regulations would curb smoke wafting from summer barbecues, which forest rangers cannot ticket under the ‘no fires’ sign because the DEC’s definition of fire is limited to open flames, Dawson said.
Keeping people from the cliff edge would prevent groups who use the falls to slackline, that is, to walk, balance or perform tricks on a line tensioned between two anchors — often trees.
“When the slackline group came through, there was nothing I could enforce there because they weren’t damaging the trees,” Dawson said. “Now I can enforce it when they’re within 6 feet of the edge. You either stop this activity or get a ticket and stop the activity anyway.”
The prohibition would not affect winter ice climbers who visit the falls with proper equipment, Dawson said.
Slacklining is a rare occurrence at Kaaterskill Falls, DEC officials said in a statement last month, but Hunter town officials expressed concern at their April 17 board meeting about the activity becoming a trend.
The DEC expects to publish draft regulations pertaining to the Northern Catskill Riparian Areas, which include Kaaterskill Falls, for public review and comment by the end of the month.
The draft regulations will be posted in the state register and on the DEC website. The regulations have been approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, and any changes to the enforcement rules would require additional signage and education, Dawson said.
“I believe these regulations are an excellent step forward,” Hunter Town Supervisor Daryl Legg said Wednesday, noting the high amount of traffic in the forest preserve. “But, in a wild forest preserve designation, the regulations aren’t strong enough.”
Legg and Greene County legislators recently met with DEC officials in response to the tourist boom at the falls and requested a change in the area’s State Land Classification in the Catskill State Park Land Master Plan.
The classification change, from a Wild Forest to an Intensive Use area, would require the state to provide facilities for visitors, according to the DEC website. After that meeting, the DEC installed a staircase up the falls and an observation deck at the top, Legg said.
“They did a lot, but there’s still a lot to do,” the town supervisor added. “With pedestrian traffic and swimming above the falls where people have slipped, that’s all just trying to keep people safe from themselves.”
The DEC has reported 39 hiking incidents at Kaaterskill Falls since 1998. Many required a rescue team, with five resulting in death.
Two people died at the falls in the summer of 2014, and that autumn, the DEC installed about 500 feet of wooden fencing at the top and bottom of the falls, with an additional 100 feet at the top of the cliff, to deter visitors from scrambling up the slopes.
Last year, the department installed a cable handrail on the trail leading up the falls, among other trail improvements under the state Adventure NY Initiative.
In 2017, crews responded to 12 major rescue calls in Hunter and eight in the Kaaterskill Falls area. In one incident, a climber slid 70 feet down the ice and had to be carried out, Dawson said Wednesday.
To curb illegal parking and dangerous driving conditions on Route 23A, the DEC is working with the state Department of Transportation to post signs that direct leaf peepers to the Laurel House parking lot over Columbus Day weekend.
Temporary signs that were posted last year resulted in far less illegal parking along Kaaterskill Clove, Dawson said. In 2016, the DEC tripled the parking lot space at the Laurel House and Scutt Road parking areas to fit 35 cars each.
Dawson will also double his assistant ranger staff from one ranger to two in addition to the regular Student Conservation Associates.
The assistant forest rangers are medically trained and paid a salary by the DEC.
“We got the second ranger for the need based on increased public usage,” Dawson said, noting before budget cuts, Greene County had three assistants scattered throughout the area’s four regions.
“With the issues at Kaaterskill, we’ve determined to have a second [ranger] at the falls.”