Destroying History at The Pine Bush Preserve

by Steve Rider

On its website it states that the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission “assure(s) the protection, restoration and management of the natural and cultural resources of the Albany Pine Bush.” However, in reality preservation of cultural resources is given little priority compared to the ecological goals. Original, unspoiled remnants of four historic roads can be found within the Preserve, some as part of the trail system, and nothing has been done to protect them nor to educate the public as to their existence. These roads are the c1661 King’s Highway, c1712 Palatine Road, 1792 State Road, and c1800 Schoharie Road.

This reality is clear in the APBPC Resource Protection and Visitor Experience Vision, adopted in 2010 and updated in 2017. It’s hard to find any mention of historic resource protection within the 60 odd pages of this document, with no mention at all among the guiding principles cited in formulating the plan, which among other things involves a reconfiguration of the trail system to minimize “fragmentation” of the preserve. (Fragmentation is the assertion that any interruption of a contiguous ecosystem causes ecological damage.) All trails were equally vulnerable in the quest to achieve this goal.

This writer became aware of trail changes during a hike a couple of years ago. Starting at the Willow Street “Great Dunes Trailhead” I hiked the trail following the old dirt road that had, on previous hikes, extended uninterrupted to the Thruway. This trail was the last undisturbed section of the c1800 Schoharie Road that originally extended from a point just north of the Thruway to Schoharie County. A barricade had been erected with a “Trail Closed” sign, with a trail leading to the right remaining open. Shortly thereafter I attended a SPB Dinner featuring Neil Gifford (APBPC Conservation Director) and asked him about the closure of the historic road. He denied that it was closed, saying the road went to the right and not straight ahead where the barricade was located!

Though hoping the closure was temporary, on future hikes I nonetheless found the same barricade with the old road beyond slowly reverting to nature. This past spring I became aware of another section of the road being closed. In April I attended a lecture by Steven Campbell, Ph. D. (APBPC Conservation Biologist) on the effectiveness of their habitat restoration projects. Although unrelated to the topic I asked Dr. Campbell why historic roads were being removed from the trail system. He seemed to have no knowledge of the road and stated that they can’t save every dirt road in the Preserve, but invited anyone to submit additional information. Another member of the audience, Brian Collins, spoke with me after the lecture, wanting to know more.

Brian and I started communicating regularly and we both wrote letters to Chris Hawver (APBPC Executive Director) expressing our concern. The Guilderland Historical Society also submitted a letter. My letter included several satellite images of the trail system, on which I marked the location of the historic roads, though I found it hard to believe they were ignorant of these roads despite the uninformed responses to my questions. All three letters received virtually the same response, written by Joel Hecht, APBPC Stewardship Director. He explained about the aforementioned 2010 RPVEV plan. He stated that the historical resources were considered, but keeping all sections of the roads open as trails would “conflict with the Commission’s other ecological and recreational objectives.” No mention was made of the images I had provided.

Not satisfied with this response, I submitted an admittedly provocative letter to the Altamont Enterprise in which I decried the lack of concern for historic preservation, finishing with this sentence: “We can only conclude that, when history and ecology conflict, history is the loser.” About a week later I received a call from Elizabeth Floyd Mair, Enterprise staff writer, indicating they wanted to run a story based on my letter, and an editorial. We spoke several times and made a field visit to the Preserve where I showed her a closed section of Schoharie Road and some traces of King’s Highway, and shared some photographs and maps from the 1930s documenting these sites. Ms. Mair also spoke with Chris Hawver and Joel Hecht. In the article, Mr. Hawver mentioned the public process by which the RPVEV was developed, claimed the historical resources were considered and balanced with the other goals, and said it was too late to change the new trail system but that they were willing to place signage on the historic roads. He said Mr. Hecht had a hand-drawn map in his office from the 1800s that clearly shows the historic roads, and also said that the historic resources are being preserved even if not used as trail since all land in the Preserve are saved from development that would permanently destroy them. My letter, a full page editorial, and a comprehensive story were published in the May 17, 2018 edition.

Brian Collins and I wanted to take further action. Each of us submitted a FOIL request. My request was for any and all documents relating to the process by which participants in the RPVEV development were selected, the backgrounds of these people, and historic maps and documents used, in particular relating to the redesign of the trail system. Mr. Hawver, as APBPC FOIL Officer, responded to my request by referring me to the 2010 Management Plan (ie RPVEV) and the 2017 update. “No other records pertaining to your request exist.” Brian’s FOIL request was worded more pointedly, resulting in an invitation to personally review all the materials used during the planning process. He invited me to join him.

We made the visit in August, spending several hours examining the records made available to us. Voluminous research publications on ecology, fragmentation and trail planning were provided. The only document relating to historic resources was a 1993 archeological review of historic assets found the much smaller Preserve that existed then. An interesting passage in this document advised that if archeological or historic sites identified by this or future studies were to be impacted by development of the Preserve these resources should be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Already determined eligible by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation were the King’s Highway and Old State Road, among other sites. The much anticipated 1800s hand-drawn map mentioned by Mr. Hawver in the Enterprise article turned out to be a section of the 1767 Bleecker map of Manor Renselaerwick (sic).

The Enterprise article caught the attention of other concerned citizens. That, plus the dozen or so letters written by Brian Collins to a variety of historical societies and government agencies, resulted in more inquiries being made to the APBP Commission. This resulted in the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation arranging a meeting that included two representatives from that office; Chris Hawver, Joel Hecht, and Erin Kinal (APBPC Education Program Director); Brian and me. This meeting was held at the end of August. Brian and I expressed our appreciation for the meeting and explained our concerns and requested actions.

We were told that the closed sections of Schoharie Road would not be re-opened as too extensive a process had been completed, including opportunities for public review and comment, for the RPVEV to be changed at this point. (Brian expressed the thought that people were continuing to use the latest closed section, including bicyclists and joggers, and that the trail’s history and heavy usage would make it very difficult to close.) We were told that signs would be designed and erected to educate the public about the historic roads, that the APBPC website would be updated to include additional information about the roads, and that the Willow Street trailhead kiosk will have interpretive information added regarding the historic roads. The OPRHP representatives said they would explore the possibility of the Schoharie Road being eligible for historic place designation.

We acknowledge the process by which the RPVEV was formulated, the ecological goals, and the measures they offered to increase awareness of the historic roads, but we believe a better balance between ecology and history needs to be established. We remain hopeful that further consideration will result in the closed sections being reopened and protected along with all other remaining remnants of historic roads.



Published in September-October 2018 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter