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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 19, 2009

Tall pines will be felled to bring back older scrub habitat

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — In the Pine Bush preserve, white pines, some over 200 years old, will be cut down in an attempt to make the area its original ecosystem.

Thirty-one acres of white pines are to be cut and used for timber. Money from the project will fund habitat conservation, said Christoper Hawver, executive director of the Pine Bush Commission.

The Albany Pine Bush covers 3,010 acres, stretching through parts of Albany, Guilderland, and Colonie. Inland pitch scrub oak barrens, it is one of only two pine barrens remaining in New York State, and one of 20 worldwide. 

Much of the preserve is characterized by sand dunes with dense shrub, field grass, and wildflowers; this environment is home to over 45 species of “greatest conservation need”, according to Christopher Hawver. Those species belong to three different animal groups, including butterflies and moths, shrub land birds, and reptiles and amphibians. Most notable is the Karner blue butterfly, which is on a federal list of endangered species.

One Altamont resident, Margaret Rusch, cross-country skis under the white pines in the area of the Pine Bush accessed off of Willow Street in Guilderland. She grew up in the Pine Bush with those trees. She was alerted to the impending tree removal when, while skiing, she noticed some of the tree trunks were marked with yellow paint; research on the Pine Bush Commission website revealed their harvesting plans. 

“I am greatly saddened…I entreat people to go and visit these wonderful creatures at the end of Willow Street before they are gone,” writes Rusch in a letter to the editor this week. “They will not come again.”

Over the years, white pines have taken root and flourished in the Pine Bush because homes in the area have made it impossible to set prescribed fires, the method normally used for pine barren habitat conservation. Some of the white pines have stood for over two centuries and now tower over the scrub oak and pitch pine that grow low to the ground. People using the trails for recreation have walked, jogged, and cross-country skied beneath them.

Neil Gifford, conservation director of the Pine Bush Commission, said the trees are not being cut down purely for use as lumber; they must be removed in order for the area to revert to its original ecosystem, which supports those rare species. The Pine Bush Commission’s vision and mandate “prescribes for us to restore the original ecosystem,” said Gifford. 

The commission was formed by the state legislature to protect the preserved lands, combining both public and private representatives.

The white pines can grow in shade, and seedlings from the older trees have sprouted up all around the scrub oaks, Gifford said. White pines are out-competing pitch pines for space, and, if they are not cut, the area cannot to support animals such as the Karner blue butterfly, the whippoorwill, and the hognose toad. 

Some animals native to the white pines habitat may be disturbed during the cutting, but steps will be taken to minimize the impact, said Hawver. Those steps include removing the trees when the ground is frozen and before breeding season begins. The animals will also be able to move into the areas with white pines that are being left intact.

The trees are being removed only from the Great Dune section, in the upper flatland areas; they will be left standing along the ravines and the lower, wet areas. White pines are not native to the flatland areas, but are being left alone in the areas where they are native, said Hawver. The harvested trees will be used for lumber, but “this is in no way a money-making project,” said Hawver. “There will be absolutely no profit.”

The commission is working with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation forestry department, which will allow contractors to bid on the removal project. Any money that comes in from the project will go directly to fund habitat conservation, said Hawver.

The time line for cutting the white pines depends on the market for contractors that would bid on the project, said Hawver. The bids should be in by the end of this month, and the contractors would then have a year to complete the work. “It’s important to remember that the contractors will be working with our staff and the DEC, so we will have control to make sure that nothing goes wrong,” said Hawver.

As for Guilderland residents who enjoy recreation among the pines, “I can empathize,” said Gifford. “We will continue to provide people with those recreational opportunities, the landscape will just look a bit different.” Hawver echoed that sentiment. “I appreciate people’s concerns,” he said. “Hopefully, we can educate the public on the benefits of this project,” he said.

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