by Grace Nichols
ALBANY, NY – Neil Gifford, Conservation Director at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, has been working in the Pine Bush since the early 1990s. He describes the mission of the Albany Pine Bush Commission, a body representing the many different governmental interests in the Pine Bush land, as “to preserve the pitch pine/scrub oak barrens” as authorized by Environmental Conservation Law Article 46 (1988) in which the legislature declared it is in the public interest to protect and manage the Albany pine barrens. To date, there are 3200 acres preserved outright as well as a 13,000 pine bush study area. Of that land, 6000 acres of open pine bush are left unpreserved, much of these are along I-90. As part of their protection and project renewal guidelines some areas are recommended for full protection, others for partial protection or for open space. The Commission hopes to protect 5000 acres of preserve in total at some point in the future. They want to allow folks to hike from Fuller Road to Woodlawn. In their most recent plan, they have asked for 526 more acres to be added to the Preserve.
The Preserve pine barrens management effort is aimed at making two major changes. The current pine bush land they manage has 13% pitch pine –scrub oak barrens, while the Preserve would like there to be 50% pitch pine-scrub oak barrens. Currently, there is 53% forest and they want there to be 17% forest. Neil says that this effort is conservation management reliant as there are limits to how much they can burn, unlike how it was in pre-Industrial times. They plan to remove 100% of black locust forest and white pine trees; 50% of the aspens; 30% of Appalachian Oaks and end up with 2000 acres of pitch pine scrub oak barrens. The prairie plants, he believes, will allow 45 species of “greatest conservation need” to continue to exist. He points to the recent increases in Karner blue numbers – from under 1000 to last year’s estimate of 2000 – as evidence that the techniques they are using are working. Their goal is to get this preserve to support 7,000 to 13,000 butterflies. They have burned 1160 acres since 1991 and removed 200 acres of black locust, a tree that does damage to the soil by providing too much available nitrogen.
Out at the Wilton Preserve, where these massive restoration techniques are just getting underway, there are 21,000 Karner Blue butterflies by last year’s count.
He was also proud of the partnership with Save the Pine Bush to restore the developed land at the Apollo site; due to the Save the Pine Bush lawsuit, the owners sold the land to the Nature Conservancy which restored the site using bulldozers; with the help of Farnsworth middle school students and the SUNY Cobleskill Horticulture program, the land was restored and there have been Karner Blues at the site since 1999.
Yet the main focus of this talk was the upcoming Landfill Restoration Plan – which is slated to restored very degraded land — well, it isn’t land at all, it’s garbage which comes from the 41 lbs of trash a day that the average American produces. As we know, it also has lots of governmental and corporate waste and large quantities of petroleum contaminated soil. The most recent expansion has taken 7 more acres of open space and the whole landfill does impact the preserve due to
1) Habitat loss, 2) Species loss, 3) Noise, 4) Invasive Species introduced – eg the phragmites which has colonized the old GAL, indicating disturbed soil, 5) Aesthetic impacts, 6) Odors, 7) Hydolrogical impacts such as removal of wetlands, 8) Prevention of wild fires — But the most important impact is — 9) FRAGMENTATION of the habitat, impacting species movement and access to different areas of the Preserve.
From a species conservation point of view, the restoration of a wildlife corridor between segments of the preserve is the most important goal of the restoration plan.
With that he also made it clear that the Preserve did not create nor control this new Restoration Plan. The City of Albany contracted with Applied Ecological Services to come up with a plan to turn the Landfill into Pine Bush land. The Preserve meets with AES every week, but only has advisory input. In fact, says Neil, if anyone has a problem with the Plan, they need to take it up with the City. The City is the entity which is libel if anything goes wrong. The Common Council recently released a million dollars of the projected $18 million dollar cost to fund the first stage of the plan.
Neil repeated: “We have no authority over the Landfill itself.” This work represents a partnership between AES and the Rapp Road Landfill, directed by Joe Giebelhaus.
Though Neil was originally skeptical about the ability of the City of Albany to restore a Landfill, he is convinced the Applied Ecological Services, led by Steven Apfelbaum and hailing from the Midwest, is up to the task. They were able to restore prairies on flat land in the Midwest which were able to support Karner Blue butterflies. Yet, the challenges of the steep slope, the wind erosion of sand, as well as the seeds of invasive species blowing in from surrounding Landfill are daunting.
So far they have collected 600 lbs of seed from 175 native species in and around the pine bush – and in this, the Preserve is working with AES. They aim to restore hydrology and plant a diverse plant community. With stream restoration underway at the bulldozed trailer park at Fox Run, and nurseries over there, they are planting a mixture including goats rue, dog bane, lupine, New Jersey tea, little bluestem grass, big bluestem, butterfly milkweed and other plants found in the Pine Bush ecosystem.
Once the landfill is capped they can work on test plots. They plan to experiment on the capped landfill to find out how much sand they will need to cover the top and to find out how the roots will affect the cap. They aim to figure out if trees and shrubs will be possible to grow in the sand on top of the plastic cap. If they are successful, the size of the whole project will be 200 acres; they plan to remove invasive species from the surrounding lands to help give the sand on the cap the chance to grow native species.
Neil also believes that the quality of the soil is quite good which will stimulate good native plant growth. AES has actually refused some donations of sand which they felt were unacceptable for the purpose.
There will be tests for 7 years until the Landfill closes and the actual restoration will begin. The test plots will be monitored but as yet there is no mechanism to release the data from these experiments to the public. Neil cannot release the results and says we have to petition the DEC to give us the results if we want to also monitor whether the plan looks possible judging by the experimental data from the test plots. In the past, the DEC has resisted giving us critical data such as Karner Blue counts despite our foils, (although they eventually released these numbers to the Times Union at which time they were released to the public.)
It will take public vigilance to make sure that the public and the Common Council gets unbiased information from the data regarding whether this plan can work – independently from the estimation of the consultants who get paid if it does work but not if it is abandoned as unworkable.
The way the Plan is designed there should be extensive monitoring of biocommunities in the covered cap; that monitoring should persist for 10 years. After closure, the vegetation is slated to be managed for another 20 years. Neil is anticipating that especially huckleberry, sand cherries and scrub oak will be able to grow there even if trees cannot. These plants are good food sources for wildlife. In addition, Neil is impressed with the AES’s plans to restore hydrology by creating dams that will allow the pools and riffles to exist in the streams (that is places of fast and slow flow) which should help restore a biofiltering system which could improve the water quality of water flowing into Rensselaer Lake.
If anything should happen to the infrastructure – if it isn’t sound – again, the City is libel.
Neil repeats and underscored the underlying principle that ecorestoration is essential to mitigating historical ecological impacts; simply buying land is not enough.
Note on one form of Ecorestoration: The Albany Pine Bush Preserve not only uses the strongest form of glyphosate, Accord, to kill hundreds of acres of Aspen and Black Locust; they have also paid outside applicators to manage hundreds of acres of the native scrub oaks with herbicides. The management around and on the landfill cap is also expected to rely heavily on “chemical management,” using a variety of herbicidal poisons.
In contrast, the Woodlawn Pine Bush Preserve in Schenectady just issued their own Master Plan which reads “No Chemical Management will be used.” (2011, Don Rittner et al)
The public is encouraged to attend the quarterly Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission meeting on 6/16/11 at 9:30 am at the Discovery Center. This is a good place to ask questions about herbicides and wildlife, plans to burn atop the landfill and other matters of concern.
Published in May/June 2011 Newsletter