ITHACA, NY – Joining with the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County, the Town of Ithaca Town Board voted unanimously in support of a $7,500 contribution to the city’s Gorge Ranger program.
The Ithaca Gorge Ranger program has become part of a bigger issue. On one side of the issue are the people who believe it’s their right to enjoy Ithaca’s waterways freely, while on the other are government officials and residents who have a variety of concerns including safety, conservation and the impact that the gorges as “party spots” have on nearby neighborhoods.
Protesters with shirts and signs featuring the slogan “Swimming is Not a Crime” gathered at the Ithaca Town Hall and City Hall before coming to speak at the town board meting. Several of them spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting, but several member of the public also spoke in favor of the resolution.
Before hearing from the public, Ithaca Town Supervisor Bill Goodman noted that the town didn’t have any policy authority on this issue — the resolution on the table was whether or not to contribute $7,500 from the town’s coffers to the city’s initiative, which is itself a one-year pilot program. The creeks and gorges themselves are under city jurisdiction.
All photos by Sam Scott, a 13-year old intern who attends Boynton Middle School.
The growing problem in the gorges
One of the reasons for seeking an expansion to the gorge ranger program is obvious: safety. One person died last year due to cliff jumping in the gorges.
The first speaker, Joe McMahon of the Ithaca Natural Areas Commission, spoke at length outlining the reasons why he felt it was important to expand the Gorge Ranger program.
McMahon started by pointing out that even if the town or the city wanted to legalize swimming in the gorge areas, New York State actually has very stringent laws about where people can swim, and that Six Mile Creek would never meet state requirements for water clarity, access and facilities without a multi-million dollar investment.
McMahon went on to explain that the sheer numbers of people coming to swim in these areas was having a serious negative effect on the local ecosystem. He reported that people often drive for hours from outside the Ithaca area to come swim in the gorges. The large numbers of people end up trampling plants, displacing animals and damaging the eco-system due to litter.
It was also clarified during the meeting that Gorge Rangers have no enforcement power — they exist in part to educate people about safety and regulations in the areas and also to have “eyes on the ground” so that if a situation is getting out of hand, proper authorities can be notified.
McMahon said that expanding the Gorge Rangers ranks would give them some much-needed back up. Rangers had reported being verbally abused, physically pushed or attacked and had even had rocks thrown at them. Apparently, even the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office has been reluctant to send deputies due to safety concerns.
Dave Melsky, Melanie Stein and Scott McCasland, residents who live near the affected areas, also spoke in favor of the resolution.
Melsky said he was concerned that the expansion wouldn’t go far enough to actually solve the problems of. He also spoke about the sense of entitlement displayed by some of those who came to party or swim. He related stories of people blocking residents from parking in their own driveways, littering and one case where a person defecated in one of his neighbor’s bushes.
Stein stated that while she wasn’t thrilled at having to turn to the government to deal with this issue, she felt that the issue was past the point where residents could expect the people partying in the gorges to behave responsibly, and so government intervention had become necessary.
Stein also said that, to her knowledge, only four people had actually been given tickets — despite some events drawing crowds of more than 200 people.
Questions of efficacy and alternatives
Several members of the “Swimming is Not a Crime” contingent said that while they weren’t necessarily opposed to the Gorge Ranger program itself, they felt that it was not an effective or efficient way to handle the issue.
Logan Bell, one of the organizers behind a 200-signature petition that was delivered to the town board, said that he felt that the local governments weren’t being open enough to different approaches to the issue and that they should solicit more feedback from the public on the issue.
“If you try something and it doesn’t work, just doubling it and doubling it and adding more enforcement in my opinion is not… we need more creative approaches,” said Bell.
Bell offered several suggestions on how the money might be better used, such as improving the signage around the gorge areas — which notably do not include any warnings about the dangers of cliff jumping, which is the primary safety issue. He also suggested that money could be put toward ensuring those areas are cleaned up regularly.
Jeremy Veverka, another of the protest organizers, also agreed that the public outreach and education provided by the rangers was important. However, he said he felt that the act of swimming was being unfairly targeted, while issues such as public intoxication or littering weren’t being focused on and that resources would be better spent tackling those deficiencies.
He echoed a call made by several other speakers, including some of the citizens who spoke in favor of the resolution, that the involved municipalities should form a public safety council to help involve the public in decision making on this issue.
“If we could have a public safety council where the public can engage with [local government and law enforcement], talk about solutions for increasing safety while allowing people like us to responsibly enjoy these areas,” Veverka said. “We clean up our trash, we don’t cliff jump. We want to enjoy those areas responsibly and work with everyone to increase public safety.”
The town board’s take
After some discussion, the town board voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, approving the $7,500 contribution to the city’s Gorge Ranger program.
Board members Tee-Ann Hunter and Pam Bleiwas said they supported the program in large part because they were worried about the potentially dangerous situations faced by the Gorge Rangers and wanted to ensure they had the support they needed.
As was touched on by some of the members of the public who spoke, Town Supervisor Bill Goodman added that the town is interested in following up with the program to see if its actually being effective. The program is a one-year pilot program and the town isn’t bound to contribute any money beyond the $7,500 authorized by this resolution.