The Way We Were

by Tom Ellis


ALBANY, NY: Don Rittner was the guest speaker at the June 20 SPB dinner.  Don was introduced by John Wolcott who said Don took Albany by storm in 1973 with his archaeological research of the Isaac Truax Tavern on the King’s Highway that George Washington stopped in six times.  He said Don also has the distinction of being fired by Albany Mayors Erastus Corning and Tom Whalen.

Don titled his presentation, “The Way We Were.”  Using a PowerPoint, he described the Pine Bush as a geological island containing plants and animals that got trapped there when the climate changed at the end of the last Ice Age.  He showed a map of the dozen or more pine barrens in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states and said New Jersey has the world’s largest.  He displayed a map of the original regional pine barrens saying a large Lake Albany was once about 600 feet above sea level and dropped three times during the past 15,000 years; each time it dropped additional sand was exposed.  The lake stretched from present-day Newburgh to Glens Falls.

Using aerial photos, he said the Washington Avenue Extension “opened” the Pine Bush to development.  Point of Ruins, aka Point of Woods, was the first residential development, he said.  Mayor Corning hired him as city archaeologist in 1973 and Corning made himself available whenever Don wished to confer.   

Corning promised that buildings along Washington Avenue Extension would not be high-rise towers, but only 2-3 stories, a promise the city has kept for the most part. [The Rapp Road Landfill is the highest structure.]  The first big test of preservation was when developer Neil Hellman took an option on 350 acres near the intersection of Washington Avenue Extension and Route 155.   Don contacted Vladimir Nabokov via phone in the middle of the night in Switzerland and asked him to write a letter in opposition to the development, which he did.  Nabokov, who gave the Karner Blue Butterfly its name, had often visited the Pine Bush.  Don and others galvanized a turnout of hundreds at an Albany Common Council meeting.  The council, a Corning rubber-stamp, did not know what to do.   Don met with Corning, explained the importance of preserving the parcel, and Corning agreed.  Corning told Don, “I don’t like Hellman.” The council voted unanimously to block the development and the city bought the 350 acres for preservation. 

Don said he has known Lou Ismay since he was eight years old.  Lou gave Don half his office to use for his initial Pine Bush preservation efforts.  

Don said Mayor Corning was a naturalist and a history buff.  At their first meeting in 1971, Corning stunned Don by writing him a check for $500 and told him to return if he needed more funds.  Don began the Pine Bush preservation project with this money.  During the early and mid- 1970s, Don searched for ways to generate public support for preserving the Pine Bush, then threatened with rapid development after the extension of Washington Avenue. Don latched onto the upcoming 1976 Bicentennial and arranged for local governments to finance the creation of 26 historical markers that he placed along the King’s Highway.  He visited the Truax Tavern site, build in 1765 and burned down in 1941, found the ruins, and obtained volunteers from Lou Ismay’s SUNYA Environmental Forum course to excavate and clean the site.  Don said the SUNYA class of 1973 was a great group.  “Someone should write a book about Lou’s 1973 students.,” he said. 

To save the pine barrens, he realized preservationists needed a symbol or mascot the public could identify with and rally around.  Various species such as the Buck Moth were considered, before settling on the Karner Blue Butterfly.  Nabakov’s connection proved valuable.  A NYS legislator had the DEC declare the Karner Blue Butterfly an endangered species in 1975.  There were 100,000 Karner Blue Butterflies in the city preserve then; visitors could see hundreds at a time. 

Twice Don said, “Nature knows how to protect itself.”  Commenting on the work of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, he said the commission burns too often and at the wrong times of the year, killing wildlife.   The best time to burn is at the end of April, said Don.  He thinks Karner Blue Butterflies are being poisoned by sulfuric acid, an indirect result of auto emissions; the commission is damaging the Pine Bush by trying to save one species – the Karner Blues – but wrecking many others including the Buck Moths.  Don and his friends did the first prescribed burn in NYS in 1976.  He said the fire went “perfect” and six months later the Blue Lupine was growing on what is now the site of the SUNYA nano-tech center. 

Don said, “No matter how much land you save, unless it is connected, it does no good.  Species must be able to migrate.”  The biggest problem with the Pine Bush today, he said, is its segmentation. 

Mayor Whalen hired Don as conservation officer in 1983 but soon fired him after he opposed the proposed State Employees Federal Credit Union (SEFCU) building on Route 155.

He said Schenectady was the first municipality to preserve the local Pine Bush but the city made no effort to manage the 100 acres it set aside in 1969.  The Woodlawn Preserve, today mostly wetlands and hardwoods and not currently good pine barrens, is now 120 acres, but it could be connected to the larger Pine Bush in Albany County.

During the Q&A, John Wolcott said Don Rittner and John Cryan provided the factual and scientific foundation Save the Pine Bush needed to be successful after SPB was founded in 1978.

Don said he published an anthology of articles in 1976 titled, The Pine Bush: Albany’s Last Frontier.  Mayor Corning wrote the introduction to this book that contains scholarly articles from many disciplines.  Sylvia Barnard, a professor of Classical Languages at SUNYA for forty years before being forced out a few years ago when the state eliminated her major and four others, said the university has changed for the worse; scientists today would never write articles for an anthology edited by a graduate student.

Winding up, Don said he walked the Pine Bush every day for twenty years in the 1970s and 1980s but was never attacked by tics until one day in 1992 when he was covered with tics, head to foot. “My clothes were moving,” he said. 

Prior to Don’s presentation, Qinghong Zhang of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, on a three-week tour of the US, spoke for a few minutes about her work at a not-for-profit that does environmental education and awareness. 




Published in August/September, 2012 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter