OCCA: A history of active involvement
Compiled and written by Teresa Winchester, former executive director. To learn more about Winchester’s tenure at OCCA, click here.
The Otsego County Conservation Association has evolved from a fledgling, volunteer-run, public outreach effort with a $1,500 annual budget to an operation with three paid staff members, an annual budget of over $300,000, and a support base of individuals, businesses, and families, including donors to Earth Festival and the Otsego Lake Festival.
In 1968, approximately one dozen residents of Otsego County with a mutual interest in the environment met at the Rex Restaurant in Oneonta and formed the Otsego County Conservation Association. Founding members included Frederick V. Mecklenburg and Irene Mozolewski, both of whom went on to serve as OCCA president.
Mecklenburg had a background in foreign trade, was a former director of the Commerce and Industry Association of New York, and was a member of the U.S. Trade Missions to India in 1955 and 1957. People who knew “Meckie” affirm that he cared about environmental preservation countywide. He was a staunch supporter of forestry, and an advocate for the acquisition of county land and for the management of private forest land.
Mozolewski was a publicist who worked as both a radio and print journalist. She was ahead of her time on conservation and land-use planning issues, advocating for a progressive but realistic county planning board, on which she served for many years. In 1995, at a difficult time of transition for the organization, OCCA received $50,000 from Mozolewski’s estate. This gift enabled OCCA to stay the course and evolve into the vital organization that it is today.
Dr. John New was not a founding member, but a past president whose contributions helped define OCCA. His environmental updates in the OCCA newsletter from the late 1970s to the early 1980s showed an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge and concern for the environment. As head of the Biology Department at SUNY-Oneonta, he established the Protecting Your Environment (PYE) club and organized an “Earth Day” before the first official event was held in 1969. New established a breeding bird atlas and documented the breeding bird population in the area. Upon its 1984 acquisition of “Big Island,” the City of Oneonta dedicated this property to John New, changing its name to “New Island.”
Other OCCA presidents have been: Dr. John Olsen, Dr. Willard Harman, William Powers, Lewis Hamilton, James Austin, Bonnie Canning Hofmann, Edna Holowachuk, James Bernegger, Edward Wesnofske, Carol Malz, Win McIntyre and Martha Clarvoe.
Water quality initiatives
Because good water quality is essential to the health and survival of all life forms, it is also the overriding issue in OCCA’s programming and concerns. OCCA’s current opposition to horizontal gas drilling is based almost exclusively on concerns for water quality, as well as quantity. Since its inception, OCCA has taken on many challenges related to water quality and has made a positive difference in that regard countywide.
OCCA has been particularly vigilant in regard to Otsego Lake. In the early years, the Lake Otsego Committee was an important arm of OCCA activity. It was initially chaired by Dr. Ted Peters. Among the committee’s initiatives were the Otsego Lake Boat Census and Boat Patrol and the Lake Surveillance Committee. It also organized a competition for a bumper sticker slogan to promote lake awareness. “Save Our Lake Otsego” (SOLO) was the winning entry. In the mid-1970s, this committee called attention to the inadequate septic system at Glimmerglass State Park – an alert which resulted in state funding of a state-of-the-art system. Twice in the 1990s, OCCA was involved in public opposition to a DEC-proposed boat launch in a vital wetland area of Otsego Lake, and twice, joining in with other voices, OCCA prevailed on this issue.
OCCA has also directed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the compilation of essential data for the formulation of an Otsego Lake management plan. One of the major findings of the early research, conducted by the SUNY-Oneonta Biological Field Station, was that agricultural run-off was a significant source of lake pollution. Based on this finding, Teresa Winchester, OCCA executive director (1994-2006), approached the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service in 1995 about the possibility of assisting with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – a federal program aimed at reducing the level of pollutants entering waterways from barnyard operations. This initiative has resulted in the completion of more than 40 barnyard water management projects on farms in the Otsego Lake watershed, with OCCA contributing approximately $425,000 to individual farms and leveraging $1.5 million in federal funds for the same purpose. As a result of this participation in the EQIP program, both OCCA and Winchester were awarded the USDA’s “Working in Harmony” award in 1999 and 2006, respectively.
Yet another important water quality initiative on the part of OCCA was the submission of a sample lake management plan to the Otsego Lake Watershed Council in 1998. The OLWC drew heavily on this model to draft its “Plan for the Management of the Otsego Lake Watershed,” officially approved by four lake municipalities in the same year. As a result of the plan, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been garnered in grant monies to protect the lake’s water quality.
Since 2005, OCCA has completed 23 acres of riparian buffer plantings in northern Otsego County. These buffers reduce erosion, increase wildlife habitat, and recharge ground water while increasing property values. Invasive species have been another program focus for OCCA. Since 2004, the organization has directed $60,000 to the Village of Cooperstown for boat inspections to prevent invasive species from being introduced into the lake. It has made outreach efforts to educate the public about prevention and control of these species. Through its sponsorship of 35 annual Lake Clean-up Days, OCCA has been a major funder of the extraction of thousands of tons of trash from the lake. On two occasions, in 2000 and 2009, OCCA has funded the stocking of walleye to control the alewife, an invasive species of fish which threatens the ecological balance of the lake. From 2007 to 2009, OCCA undertook its first major fund drive, the Otsego Lake Challenge, to ensure continued support for major initiatives for the lake: the septic system management plan, zebra mussel control, invasive species inspections, riparian buffers, EQIP projects, lake monitoring, and public education regarding these programs – why they are needed and what they accomplish. This effort was boosted by the Lou and Susanna Hager Matching Challenge Grant of $150,000. OCCA board members then worked hard to procure another $230,000, bringing the total raised to $380,000.
OCCA has also made a positive difference on other bodies of water in the county. In the early 1970s, OCCA supported two major DEC initiatives in regard to Canadarago Lake – the installation of a tertiary treatment plant for Richfield Springs and a comprehensive fisheries plan for the lake. OCCA also discouraged the construction of a dam in Gilbertsville which would have flooded valuable fertile land. It also urged the county to initiate a comprehensive sewage study. In 2002, OCCA extended its involvement with USDA-EQIP to western Otsego County, assisting with costs for four barnyard water management projects in the towns of Burlington, Morris, and Pittsfield. In 2009, OCCA worked with the Canadarago Lake Improvement Association to begin to craft a state of the lake report on which to base a lake management plan. On Goodyear Lake, OCCA is winding up a three-year program for the manual eradication of the water chestnut, an aquatic invasive plant threatening that lake’s ecosystem. OCCA is also assisting the Goodyear Lake Association with its lake management plan. In 2008, OCCA partnered with the Town of Hartwick on a hydrology study of the portion of the Susquehanna River that runs through the Route 28 corridor. The study identified many areas in which yields are insufficient for some developments. Finally, in partnership with Hartwick College, OCCA is participating in a water quality monitoring project, one component of which is to analyze samples for pesticide and herbicide contamination taken from 40 sites ranging from Otsego Lake southward to the Susquehanna as far as Unadilla.
Land–use management Initiatives
Preservation of our natural resources and open spaces, coupled with appropriate development, has always been in the forefront of OCCA’s concerns. Over the years, representatives from OCCA have attended countless town board and planning board meetings to learn about and comment on major development projects. Municipal adherence to environmental regulations, particularly pertaining to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) is of primary importance to the organization. In particular, OCCA has monitored and sought to encourage appropriate development in the Route 28 corridor, especially in regard to youth baseball camps, the establishment of which has changed the face of Otsego County more than any other form of development. In the early 2000s, OCCA, as a member of the Glimmerglass Coalition, was a key player in reviewing, and to the extent possible, bringing about environmentally favorable modifications of large projects such as Cooperstown Dreams Park, Holiday Inn Express and Howard Johnson motels. Also with the Coalition, OCCA effected the relocation of the proposed Cooperstown Baseball World to Oneonta, a more suitable location due to the utilization of structures already in existence at SUNY-Oneonta, such as baseball fields and dormitories.
In 2006, OCCA created a staff position dedicated to land-use planning, bringing on Erik Miller, who became executive director in 2006. Miller’s expertise in the review process resulted in the withdrawal of a proposed wood-burning plant within the city limits of Oneonta. Other Oneonta involvements have included work with the Oneonta-Susquehanna Greenway Committee, environmental board and planning commission. Also in 2006, Miller was appointed as advisor to the Cherry Valley Planning Board and worked with the Village of Milford regarding the greening of the village: planting street trees, creating pedestrian-friendly streets, and expanding parks and green spaces. In New Lisbon, Miller worked to get a comprehensive planning process underway while assisting citizens in the Town of Unadilla who had concerns about operations at a transfer station and construction/demolition site. He also provided the Town of Edmeston with information on zoning issues and advised the Town of Hartwick on both zoning and comprehensive planning. In 2008 and 2009, Miller gave input on the proposed Madison Square Garden music festival to the Town of Springfield and on a proposed sub-division in the Town of Otsego. During the same time period, he researched, educated and commented on horizontal gas drilling. In regard to this issue, Miller submitted a nine-page commentary on the final scoping document for the DEC Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement and supervised the creation of a map showing properties whose owners have signed contracts with drilling companies in the county.
Solid waste management and recycling Initiatives
As early as 1974, well in advance of a county-operated recycling program, OCCA, in partnership with the League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area, was operating the “Cooperstown Reclamation Center” for recycling paper, glass and aluminum. OCCA has also functioned as a “watchdog” in regard to the four-county solid waste management authority, MOSA. In 1996, OCCA produced a 16-page newsletter dedicated exclusively to problems associated with MOSA and making recommendations for the future of solid waste management for our county. In 1998, OCCA organized a countywide used tire collection, taking in 5,000 tires for recycling. The collection was held in conjunction with the county’s first Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day, which OCCA had urged the county board to authorize. The following year, thanks to OCCA’s efforts, the latex paint collection was added to HHWD and continues to take place, with the remixed paint distributed free of charge to non-profits in the county. For this event, OCCA Board President Martha Clarvoe typically recruits volunteers without whose help the event could not take place. Also at OCCA’s urging, the county board convened the Burn Barrel Education Committee, which has effectively pursued its mission of informing the public about the health threats posed by outdoor trash burning as well as advocating for statewide legislation limiting the practice. Clarvoe is an active member of this committee. In 2000, under the supervision of Clarvoe, OCCA assumed responsibility for recycling books remaining after the annual Village of Cooperstown library sale, resulting in the recycling of more than seven tons of books. Since 2002, OCCA has widely distributed its in-house publication, Recycling: Above and Beyond, a compilation of local drop-off points for items not included in the county’s recycling program, another initiative in which Clarvoe was significantly involved.
In addition to water quality, land-use planning, and solid waste/recycling, OCCA has undertaken a variety of other endeavors in the interest of our local environment. Among them are publication of an outdoor recreation guide,Otsego Walk and Paddles, light pollution education, and mini-grants to local schools for environmentally-themed projects. As part of its public outreach and education efforts, OCCA participates in the organization of the Otsego Lake Festival and the Earth Festival. OCCA administrative director Darla M. Youngs is the designated OCCA liaison for these events, serving on the steering committee for both. She also represents OCCA on the Otsego County Water Quality Coordinating Committee, for which she serves as secretary.
In regard to sustainability and energy reduction, Clarvoe has been instrumental in forming teams to follow the “Low Carbon Diet,” a program designed to reduce the carbon footprint of an individual or family. She has also spearheaded an energy-saving program through Otsego Regional Cycling Advocates (ORCA), a committee convened by OCCA to promote bicycling in Otsego County. One of ORCA’s goals is to encourage county residents to think about using alternative, “green” transportation to get to work. To that end, ORCA organized a “Bike to Work Day” in May 2009.
Conservationists of the year
Since 1989, OCCA has recognized at its Annual Dinner individuals or groups who have made a positive difference in regard to the environment. Groups recognized have included the Otsego Lake Watershed Council and the Otsego County Burn Barrel Education Committee. Recent individual recipients of the OCCA award have been Henry Kernan for his advocacy of sound forestry management, Edward Lentz for his actions both local and regional regarding global warming, and Dr. Ted Peters for 30 years of water quality stewardship applied in the Otsego Lake watershed.