Synopsis: A letter from President Emeritus to the Orange Count legislature regarding the Dutchess Quarry Caves.
Letter from President Emeritus to the Orange Count legislature regarding the Dutchess Quarry Caves:
Date: November 22, 2020
Dear Members of the Physical Services Committee, the Full Legislature and the Executive, Orange County New York,
It is my pleasure to write on behalf of Orange Environment, Inc., an organization that has advocated for the ecological integrity and community sustainability of the Orange County region since 1982.
Last week, the Rules Committee took the first step toward the county selling the remaining portion of the Dutchess Quarry property. We would have preferred that they had declined to act. That said, we applaud their including a plan to fund a study of how to achieve the incredible educational and interpretive potential of the site, something that we and many others have advocated for since the 1980s. It indicates that the members of the rules committee are not only aware, but share, our appreciation of the importance of the Lookout Mountain (i.e., Dutchess Quarry) caves. On this, we are of a common mind.
Also worthy of acknowledgement is the counties’ recent action to increase the buffer around the National Register Site where the caves are located. This is a further indication that our current elected officials recognize the long-term importance of the caves and want to preserve them. We share the same goals. Let’s build on this common ground further. The county now has the chance to reshape the entire story of the caves by attending to these further issues.
- The Physical Services Committee must now issue a positive declaration under SEQR (the State Environmental Quality Review Act) requiring a full Environmental Impact Statement for the sale of the remaining parcel for continued mining. This study must not be superficial but must provide the decisionmakers with a thorough understanding of the implications of further mining.
- Then there is the development of the aforementioned educational and interpretative potential of the site, contributing a major asset for tourism as well. At the interpretive center, visitors would be able to peer into the caves remotely through cameras without actually going to the caves, something that is a risk both to the caves and the visitor at this point. Collections of artifacts from the caves can be donated or borrowed or purchased and collected, studied and curated. Further research can be facilitated and coordinated.
Assuming funds are actually appropriated for a preliminary study of this topic, there is a sound reason to delay a decision on mining until that study is complete. While curriculum can be developed about the caves for use in schools immediately, until plans involving the actual caves and the overall site are fully envisioned, it cannot be understood how a sale for further mining might impact on plans for an educational center. In my work on the site in the 1980s, I foresaw locating an interpretive center/museum behind the caves where there is now a 200-foot steep chasm. At this juncture, the best location for a center might well be on the land that the county contemplates selling. If it too is mined out, that possibility is lost. It would be prudent to create the vision for public education before removing any more of the landscape. And this information should be developed prior to and included in the Environmental Impact Statement.
- The Dutchess Quarry caves have been extensively studied and is the subject of a sizable literature in archeology. This work is summarized in Orange County’s 2012 study of the caves. We know a lot about the significance of this site. And there is a lot we have yet to learn. Much of the future effort can be facilitated and coordinated through the interpretive center/museum discussed above. The Environmental Impact Statement must consider the significance of the whole site and the preservation of the caves for future learning both about the original population of the county and the context within which they lived.
- Next, we must consider the entire site. The county has backed itself into a corner by allowing extensive mining without having a comprehensive master plan and reclamation blueprint for what the county would be left with when all was said and done. The massive bowl that has been dug into Lookout mountain could easily remain a permanent scar in the land, a hazard and a liability.
Of prime importance is the question of water. Tilcon, the current leaseholder, actively pumps water from the bowl in order to continue mining. Will the county subsequently continue to pump water out to keep the bowl dry? Or will it allow the bowl to fill with water? Lake Lookout might be a wonderful recreational asset to the county, but its very deep waters will require careful control and public safeguarding. Safeguarding will also be required for a deep open chasm if pumping were to continue. And the impact and cost of continued pumping must also be considered.
Of relevance to the reclamation is the issue of context. What did residents of the Lookout Mountain caves look out over? The black dirt region was previously a primordial swamp, a huge Atlantic White cedar wetland forest teeming with game. In historic times, this ecosystem was dramatically changed. Upland farmers harvested the cedar for fence posts while lowland farmers drained the wetlands and still do. A masterplan might consider the potential for restoring an area of the original ecosystem on farmland below Lookout Mountain that is prone to flooding as a system of flood retention. Or, perhaps the 200-foot chasm itself might be restored as an Atlantic White cedar wetland?
Finally, the impact of the overall site for the caves must also be considered. Are they safer with an empty chasm behind them or with a lake or with a restored wetland system? Because the bedrock is soluble in water, the threat of undermining the cave mound is a concern.
So, a masterplan of reclamation and development for the entire site is required before a sale is implemented. Perhaps the county will need to retain control of the parcel it intends to sell in order to implement that plan. Or it will need to place conditions on the sale to assure that any further mining is consistent with the plan. All of this needs to be understood before a competent Environmental Impact Assessment can be written and before a sale is done.
- An issue that has not previously been considered is the sacredness and significance of the site to the region’s indigenous peoples. Orange Environment invited Chief Vincent Mann, who heads the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough-Lenape nation, to our recent press conference on the caves. Many Ramapough live in Orange County, which is part of their traditional lands. From their perspective, and perhaps ideally from all of ours, this is a sacred site. It contains remains and cultural remnants of the first peoples to live in our county. Their ancient ancestors. It tells the story of these first peoples, going back 12,500 to 15,000 years, and connects them all the way to the present native inhabitants, who must now play a role in decisions about the site and in its educational and cultural interpretation. The Environmental Impact Statement must consider this contemporary cultural impact as well as the archeological cultural impact.
- Orange Environment has a long history in developing party of interest processes where public oversight helps guide the development of a site. Coming from the 2012 county study, an advisory board has operated at the site in the recent past. We recommend creating an oversite board with a mix of public stakeholders, experts and county and local staff and officeholders to guide all of the steps discussed here. Operating with full transparency, we have the chance to make this a rare model in public decision making with widespread understanding and support. This board should be involved in overseeing the preliminary studies and the Full Environmental Impact Statement.
- As to the continuation of mining, while we understand that the County seeks to raise revenue in this period of fiscal stress, there are reasons to not sell the remaining dolomitic limestone resource found at the site, at least now. Even though the price more than doubled with the recent appraisal, some argue that the current value is much greater. Moreover, the material will not diminish in value over time and may be more vital, and thus valuable, in the future. The county may in the future find that it needs this resource for its own use. And it is not going anywhere! Accordingly, there is no urgency to the decision.
- In sum, there is no compelling reason for the County to sell the unmined land now. This lack of urgency comports well with the fact that numerous studies are required to figure out how to manage the site once mining ceases on the current lease, how to best protect and preserve the caves and how to best develop the educational, research and tourism potential of the site while respecting its sacred nature. The studies needed to address these issues are a necessary preliminary step to undertaking a thorough Environmental Impact Statement and would need to be incorporated in the EIS if not done beforehand. Hasty past decisions without foresight have created a mess with which the county must now contend. This time let’s take our time and do this right with full stakeholder and public engagement.
We look forward to working with the legislature and executive to make the future of Lookout Mountain a real success story for the benefit of current and future county residents and out of proper and deep respect for our first residents.
Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, Orange Environment, Inc.