John Wolcott, passionate advocate for Albany Pine Bush, dies

A founding member of Save the Pine Bush in 1978, Wolcott was a month shy of his 91st birthday when he passed away Thursday

ALBANY — John Wolcott, a passionate long-time defender of preserving the Pine Bush ecosystem, self-proclaimed Albany historian, and thorn in the side of developers and government officials for decades, died this past week. Wolcott, a founding member of Save the Pine Bush in 1978, was a month shy of his 91st birthday when he passed away Thursday.

His paid obituary said he was “a true Renaissance man,” who was also a calligrapher and learned the Dutch language to study old Albany records. “He was an all or nothing person, which sometimes caused him trouble,” it said.

Wolcott, as part of Save the Pine Bush, fought myriad development proposals over the decades in the sensitive pine barrens that stretch across the city of Albany, Colonie and Guilderland. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is currently 3,350 acres and is a rare inland coastal pine ecosystem that is one of fewer than 20 left in the world.

One of Wolcott’s and the group’s victories was after it fought SEFCU’s plan to build its headquarters on New Karner Road in the 1980s. A judge ultimately found it had been built without the proper environmental review, which set the stage for a land swap aided by the state that put the SEFCU (now Broadview) headquarters just outside the Harriman campus. The New Karner Road SEFCU building was turned into the Pine Bush’s Discovery Center.

On the 25th anniversary in 2003 of the environmental group’s founding, Wolcott rhapsodized about his parents taking him to the Pine Bush when he was a small child and being mesmerized by the land’s sand dunes and pine trees.

“I never got over it,” he told the Times Union.

In just one example of his advocacy, Wolcott did research on land under a proposed tract of 13 houses in Guilderland in 1989, saying it featured the last unpaved section of the original King’s Highway, once a major route to the western frontier of the state and dating back to at least 1660. He also said the land held the ruins of a 1790 tavern.

When the Albany Common Council narrowly approved rezoning 46 acres off Rapp Road for commercial use in 1999, Wolcott got into a heated argument with a consulting engineer to the project’s developer at the meeting.

While Wolcott’s name was on many legal challenges to government-approved development, some of the legal cases were not successful, such as trying to stop construction in the early 2000s of the 152-unit Avila Senior Residential Housing project, which was built on 30 acres along Washington Avenue Extension. Most recently Save the Pine Bush sued the town of Guilderland in an attempt to stop the construction of the region’s first Cotsco Wholesale; private residents have taken up the cause and brought a third suit this past summer.

In the oldest mention of Wolcott in the Times Union digital archives, he was leading a small expedition into the Pine Bush in 1988 to learn about the Karner blue butterfly, a native species to the Pine Bush; five years later, in 1993, the Karner blue was declared an endangered species by the federal Department of Interior.

Wolcott noted the butterfly’s entire life cycle is dependent on the lupine plant, which is native to the Pine Bush. “If you don’t have one, you don’t have the other,” he said 35 years ago.

In 2001, Wolcott was presented with a state Assembly resolution honoring his accomplishments.

Don Rittner, a Schenectady historian, wrote a tribute to Wolcott on Facebook saying, “To some a fault, he never compromised his principles, fought the hard fight.”

“John could walk anywhere in downtown Albany and tell you what was under your feet. He was an archeologist, the best damn historian, and a walking encyclopedia on local history,” Rittner wrote.

Two years ago, Wolcott and his wife suffered a devastating loss when their home on Sheridan Avenue was heavily damaged in a fire — with Wolcott’s treasure trove of books, documents, maps and research destroyed. They luckily were away at the time. “On this date, May 23, 2021, our house burned to the ground,” Wolcott posted on Facebook a few months ago. “Thanks be to God that we were not home.”

Wolcott’s obituary noted he also helped establish the Bozenkill Preserve in Altamont; saved the Stanford house in Schenectady and the Schoolcraft house in Guilderland, and mapped out all of the Dutch barns in Guilderland, Altamont, and Berne areas. His research and advocacy also helped to protect 48 Hudson Ave., built in 1728 and considered Albany’s oldest standing structure.

Wolcott is survived by his wife, Linda Becker, as well as many family members.

Family and friends are invited to attend memorial services on Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 49 Killean Park, Colonie. His obituary notes contributions in Wolcott’s memory can be made to St. Michael’s Church, 49 Killean Park, Albany NY 12205, or Save the Pine Bush, care of Lynne Jackson, 223 South Swan Street, Albany NY 12202.

Source: Albany Times Union, August 20, 2023.