HUNTER — State officials announced the closure of Kaaterskill Falls on Sunday, saying it places an unnecessary burden on first responders and a danger to state and local resources during the COVID-19 crisis.
The 7,620-acre state forest will remain open, but the viewing platform and connecting trails were closed to the public Monday.
“Kaaterskill Falls is a popular destination that consists of several short-access trails leading from large parking areas to the falls and the viewing platform,” according to a statement from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “The falls, viewing platform, and access trails are relatively small areas that are currently concentrating recreationists together, preventing safe social distancing at this site, as well as placing an unnecessary burden on and danger to State and local resources and emergency responders during the ongoing public health response. DEC will continue to evaluate the situation and will announce when these areas reopen to the recreating public.”
Hunter Town Councilman Sean Mahoney supported DEC’s decision.
“I’m grateful that DEC took the steps necessary to temporarily close it down,” he said. “Clearly with the crisis everyone should be practicing good social distancing. It was clear that was not happening on just about every nice day that we had. With the parking lots accessing the falls, those trails were all packed, that’s not good for anybody. It’s unfortunate that it had to be closed. I think it was the last step necessary to achieve the desired result.”
Local and state officials are also concerned about the strain the high volume of visitors to the falls would put on first responders, Mahoney said.
“It was another concern that caused the town and the county to request that DEC do something,” Mahoney said. “The town has no jurisdiction to do anything there. But we have a very limited amount of first responders. Typically with rescues and incidents at Kaaterskill Falls it requires technical rescues and we need to make sure those people are available to respond to the public health crisis.”
The town issued a statement last month requesting visitors avoid using trails.
“We asked people not to access our trailheads and high peak,” he said. “This was the one place that was officially closed by DEC. There are a number of other areas we are asking people to not go to for the same reasons.”
The message was issued on the town’s website March 24 and requested visitors and residents not to access trailheads, public recreational areas, local landmarks or high peaks in the town of Hunter.
The request was prompted in part by correspondence from Greene County EMS Coordinator Sean Hotaling.
“As we all can see, the situation with COVID-19 is changing daily and there are still many uncertainties,” Hotaling said in a statement. “It has been decided that fire department first response will only be dispatched for any Echo level call or Delta level cardiac arrest call during this temporary policy.”
Calls are ranked by priority using a six-level system, with Delta and Echo being the two highest priority types of calls.
“This decision was taken with responder safety at the forefront,” Hotaling said. “It is imperative that we all protect ourselves as best we can. The lack of large amounts of the proper PPE has unfortunately put the county’s fragile EMS system in a tough position.”
The town asked DEC to close the falls several weeks ago.
“The town reached out to DEC going on three weeks ago in regards to our concerns with Kaaterskill Falls as we saw a big influx of folks looking to get away from the city or get out of their houses in general,” Kukle said.
The viewing platform at the falls was of particular concern because the metal railings could hold the virus.
“This was a good move,” Kukle said. “The parking lots have been overflowing the last few weekends. This was a group effort of people coming together to respond to that.”
The falls is not a feasible location for social distancing, Legislator Larry Gardner, D-Hunter, said.
“That particular venue does not lend itself to people being spaced out,” he said. “It’s counterintuitive to what we’re trying to accomplish with keeping people separate from each other. Closing down the falls is a very good move. It’s consistent with everything else we’re trying to do.”
Gardner said seeing the action taken by DEC was gratifying.
“It concerned us locally and concerned the state, thankfully, to the point where they closed it down,” he said.
“The cars were everywhere, the people were everywhere,” Councilman Dolph Semenza said. “DEC put out a memo that if there’s an accident, the only people going there were the EnCon officers. There are other hiking trails around that are more park-like and people are less prone to be injured.”
Parking areas at Molly Smith, Laurel House Road and Scutt Road are for public use and roadside parking in these areas is prohibited. All access trails leading to the falls will be closed.
DEC is also blocking roads leading to the North-South Lake Campground to encourage social distancing. Trails that connect with the campground will remain accessible, according to DEC.
Overall, the town is responding to state directives, Mahoney said.
“By and large, if you go into town, the traffic is much reduced,” he said. “You’re always going to see people that are not taking it seriously, people that are taking advantage of the good weather and not really social distancing. Everyone has to eat, so the supermarket is definitely busy. But I would say it’s really evident when the nicer weather is occurring where you can drive down street and see people that are not [distancing]. Most of our residents I think are taking it very seriously.”
The town supports DEC’s decision, Kukle said, and looks forward to when the falls can reopen.
“The town’s in favor of [the closure] and we look forward to reopening,” he said. “We all survive up here because of the visitors that come to our community.”