Albany — A blizzard howled on the evening of Feb. 6, 1978, when a shrinking remnant from the last Ice Age faced the prospect of the bulldozer.
Anyone who cared that land in the Pine Bush — glacially created sand dunes and pitch pines at the city’s western edge — was slated for an office building would have to brave the storm to complain at the sole city hearing on the issue.
The storm was so bad that the state sent workers home early and public buses stopped running. Lynne Jackson, Reszin Adams and John Wolcott gathered friends who cared about the Pine Bush and hoofed it to the meeting.
City planners "let the developers talk for 90 minutes, and then, before we could speak, they shut down the meeting due to the weather. We were really angry, so we started meeting afterward," said Jackson, a then-23-year-old lobbyist fresh out of the University at Albany environmental club.
Three decades later, what turned into the environmental group Save the Pine Bush is still going, with Jackson, Adams and Wolcott a little grayer, but no less committed.
Over the years, the group has filed dozens of lawsuits to block development and force the city and other governments to consider preserving the area. Its first suit forced the city to hold another public hearing to make up for the blizzard-abbreviated meeting.
"We decided to talk as much as we could about the Pine Bush, and brought people so we could keep on talking," Wolcott said.
The group’s attention helped encourage the state in 1988 to create the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, which would own and manage the parcel. The commission includes officials from the three towns in which the preserve lies.
Save the Pine Bush is credited as the savior of the rare environment, which is widely seen by scientists as the best example of inland pine barrens in North America.
Agitators and subversives
The preserve has grown to 3,100 acres in Albany, Colonie and Guilderland, where hikers can appreciate the unusual animals, prairie grasses and wildflowers.
As city planner, Bill Bruce often found himself opposite Save the Pine Bush and the group’s rumpled, implacable lawyer, Louis Oliver. "They are the nicest group of agitators or subversives I’ve ever met," said Bruce, who recently retired as Albany’s General Services commissioner.
"But all kidding aside, there would be no Pine Bush Preserve without Save the Pine Bush."
Bruce recalled that in the early 1980s, "there were still many people who scoffed at the suggestion that the Pine Bush was even worth saving. There was a wave of development proposals that threatened to leave the remaining habitat irreversibly fragmented.
"Save the Pine Bush was fighting on one hand to raise awareness, especially with public officials, of how important and unique the Pine Bush was, and on the other hand, holding developers at bay with legal challenges."
To pay for lawsuits, Jackson cashed in some of her retirement fund. And in the 1980s, the group began what turned into its monthly vegetarian-lasagna dinners at the First Presbyterian Church on State and Willet streets, with Adams mixing things up with a half-dozen recipes.
Fairly constant legal confrontation hasn’t win the group many friends, especially at City Hall. Adams recalled a rare audience over a project with then-Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III in his office. "The whole time, he never said a word. He just glared at us," said Adams, who learned of the Pine Bush after she moved to Albany in the 1950s.
Jackson, who now runs a computer consulting business, recalled that, for years, "the city considered us less than nothing, and that is probably what made us so hardheaded."
The group has filed a lot of lawsuits, most recently against a planned hotel near Crossgates Mall. The group is also fighting the city again, this time over plans to expand the Rapp Road dump.
Such tactics grabbed City Hall’s attention. Save the Pine Bush scored one of its largest victories when it sued the city in 2000. The environmental group wanted to determine how much land is needed to maintain the barrens through a series of controlled fires that mimic what nature had been doing for thousands of years.
Before humans intervened, fires caused by lightning strikes cleared undergrowth and caused the armorlike pitch pine cones to open and drop seeds into newly opened sandy soils. There, young saplings had no competition with other plants for sunlight and nutrients.
In a response to the lawsuit, the city included a report that found at least 2,000 acres were needed for effective fire management — giving Save the Pine Bush a scientifically based goal. Such burns are now done each season at the preserve.
"They are a small group of people dedicated to a mission that helped create this entity to protect and manage the preserve," said Pine Bush Preserve Commission Director Chris Hawver.
"They have a lot of passion and persistence. And their legacy is the pine barrens themselves. Without them, there would be no Pine Bush Preserve Commission," said Hawver, who owes his offices to a Save the Pine Bush lawsuit.
After the suit unearthed a problem with the underlying title for the property, the State Employees Federal Credit Union donated the building to the commission and moved elsewhere.
Hawver’s 11-person staff manages the preserve, which welcomes 75,000 visitors a year.
Of the original 25,000 acres of Pine Bush, only about 6,000 are undisturbed. "About half of that is protected now," said Hawver. "Our vision is for about 4,600 acres."
The commission isn’t immune from suits by Save the Pine Bush, either: In 1993, the commission was sued over missing details in the preserve management plan. Save the Pine Bush won.
"If it were not for their voice and if it were left to government alone, there would have been too many compromises" that would have diminished the Pine Bush, said Aaron Mair, a member of the preserve commission and president of the W. Heywood Burns Center, an Arbor Hill environmental group. "They made the government do better, and they have not wavered in their mission."
Brian Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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