ITHACA, NY – In a move one legislator called “big brotherism” the Tompkins County Legislature voted 10-3 in favor of supporting a program that will provide additional personnel to ensure that people are following the rules and being safe while enjoying the Six Mile Creek Gorge.

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The agreement will see county commit up to $7,500 to the City of Ithaca’s Gorge Ranger program, which has for over 20 years employed civilian Gorge Rangers to patrol the area to discourage unlawful behavior. The City currently has hired two Gorge Rangers on a seasonal basis.

According to the resolution, there were 120 reported events and 1,498 reported infractions in the Six Mile Creek Gorge area in 2015, resulting in neighborhood complaints about large and sometimes unruly crowds traversing through residential areas to and from the gorge areas.

With combined funding from the county, the City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca, the program aims to bring on two more rangers for the 2016 season to help curtail these infractions, as a one-year pilot initiative.

Legislator Mike Sigler raised objection to the plan, calling it a victimless crime and noting that people swimming and enjoying the gorges is a long tradition in Ithaca, and that people are going to continue doing so.

“It’s another touch of big-brotherism that I frankly just don’t agree with,” he said.

Ithaca City Clerk Julie Holcomb agreed that swimming in the gorges is a decades-old Ithaca tradition, but explained the need for the expansion of the program due to recent developments.

“We’re getting very large crowds. Tompkins County Sheriff’s department has documented crowds of up to 250 swimmers at a time,” Holcomb said. “There’s a copious amount of alcohol. There’s drug abuse going on up there. It’s a very different situation than what we’ve had in the past.”

She also noted that the tragic death of a 20-year-old Virgil man last year occurred immediately after the swimmers had been warned by Gorge Rangers.

Legislator Will Burbank, who ultimately voted in favor of the program due to its trial basis and educational approach, expressed some ambivalence.

“There’s a certain joy to be found to being able to swim in an unsupervised area… yes, its certainly dangerous, walking on trails is dangerous, life is full of dangers,” Burbank said. “There’s a feeling that we as human beings need to come to grips with our environment and know that its not always benign. The attempt to endlessly insulate us from that reality is not always helpful.”

Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne emphasized that the program is focused on education and not confrontational, heavy-handed enforcement. The goal of the program, she said, is to educate people about the dangers posed by the gorges in a cost-effective manner.

Before the vote, Sigler made pitched a capitalistic alternative: “Maybe you fence it in, you put some lifeguards in there, you charge people ten bucks for a swimming tag… the city now has a money-maker.”

The vote passed 10-3, with Legislators Mike Sigler, Glenn Morey and Dave McKenna voting against.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.