by Lynne Jackson
ALBANY, NY: Recently, a number of people have asked me why developers can build in the Pine Bush — isn’t the Pine Bush protected? This question has got me thinking about how confusing all of the terms used in this fight to save the Pine Bush can be. And, it does not help that government officials and developers don’t seem to know either.
The Pine Bush Ecosystem
Let’s start at the beginning — the Pine Bush ecosystem. The Pine Bush ecosystem once covered 56,000 acres from Albany, NY to Schenectady, NY. This beautiful land made up of with sand dunes and covered with pitch pine trees, shrub oaks and all kinds of plants and animals was once considered “waste land.” One of the first railroad lines was built in the Pine Bush. The historic Maquas Padt (Mohawk path) is in the Pine Bush.
Now, there are approximately 6000 acres of Pine Bush ecosystem remaining or one tenth of its original size. Tens of thousands of acres have been lost to development.
Approximately 3500 acres of the Pine Bush ecosystem has been purchased and added to the preserve. The remaining 2500 acres is privately owned. Private land owners can build what they wish on their land in the Pine Bush ecosystem, as long as they follow local building and zoning codes. There is no protection for this land from development.
Save the Pine Bush’s position is that all of the Pine Bush ecosystem should be protected and preserved.
The Pine Bush Preserve
The Pine Bush Preserve is Pine Bush ecosystem that has been dedicated to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve according to Environmental Conservation Law. The law states “Albany Pine Bush preserve” or “preserve” shall mean lands that have been dedicated for preservation in the preserve that are located in Albany,Guilderland and Colonie and which is characterized by the presence of typical pitch pine/scrub oak forest including pitch pine, scrub oak, pine barrens, vernal ponds and/or the presence of sand dunes. In addition, other land which lacks pitch pine/scrub oak forest may be dedicated to the preserve as a protective or buffer zone for other dedicated lands.
To remove land from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve takes two successive votes in the New York State legislature and the signature of the governor.
The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission
The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission was created by the NY State Legislature in 1988 in response to Save the Pine Bush’s successful lawsuits in the 1980’s. The Commission has eleven members, seven members are established by law and include the mayor of Albany, and the Town Supervisors of Colonie and Guilderland, plus other members. Four members are private citizens appointed by the governor. No active member of Save the Pine Bush has ever been appointed to the Commission.
The Environmental Conservation law specifically outlines the duties of the Commission, which includes fire management of the preserve and other management actions. The Commission can purchase land to add to the preserve. Currently, the Commission employs over 20 full-time staff.
In contrast, Save the Pine Bush owns no land in the Pine Bush, nor does Save the Pine Bush work on managing the preserve. The advocacy work of Save the Pine Bush is done with volunteer labor.
Save the Pine Bush has sued the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission three times; once over the Commission’s management plan, and two more times to make the Commission perform controlled burns.
Full Protection — Partial Protection and the Management Plan
When the Commission was established, it was tasked with creating a management plan for the preserve and revising and updating the plan every five years. As a result of Save the Pine Bush’s first lawsuit against the Commission, the Commission added detailed criteria as to how to achieve a preserve that would ensure the survival of the Pine Bush ecosystem. The current 2017 Management Plan Update creates a goal of a preserve size of 5,380 acres.
The management plan includes an analysis of the ecological communities in the Pine Bush and an analysis of the plants and animals in the Pine Bush. The plan has a scoring system for the protection criteria. Then, the plan ranks every privately owned parcel of land in the Pine Bush ecosystem as to its importance for protection.
The plan makes a distinction between recommended for “Full Protection” and recommended for “Partial Protection.” The plan defines Full Protection as “protection of undeveloped portions of designated areas in their entirety.”
Partial protections is defined as “indicates that protection of some portion of an area is appropriate” and “in general it should be assumed that partial protection implies protection of at least 50 percent of an area so designated.”
Save the Pine Bush does not recognize the partial protection category. We believe all of the remaining privately-owned Pine Bush should be purchased and added to the preserve.
Full protection is land recommended by the Commission to be added to the preserve. The Commission can only work with willing land owners. If the owner of the land does not want to sell to the Commission, nothing can make them sell. The Commission has no power of eminent domain,
This is why developers can propose and can build in full protection areas. Full protection is only a recommendation of the Commission as written in the plan.
Who is Save the Pine Bush?
Save the Pine Bush started as a group of outraged citizens after a public hearing on February 6, 1978 in the middle of one of the biggest snow storms Albany every saw. We were so angry that the public hearing was held in the middle of this storm, and then adjourned early due to the weather. We were not invited to attend the continuation of the hearing. Our only recourse was to sue the City of Albany for its approval of the four developments proposed at that hearing.
Unfortunately for the Pine Bush, those four proposed developments were just the beginning. Since 1978, dozens of developments have been proposed. Save the Pine Bush has filed over 30 lawsuits to stop developments.
Save the Pine Bush is all volunteers. We have no staff, no office and no phone. For years, we raised money by having monthly vegetarian lasagna dinners and by small donations. We have never obtained any grants because no grant-dispersing organization funds environmental litigation. We have hired lawyers to represent us and scientists to review environmental impact statements.
Developers, government officials and people conflate Save the Pine Bush and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. However, we could not be more different. Save the Pine Bush is a group of people who care deeply for the Pine Bush. We are all volunteers, and, because of our advocacy to stop development and preserve land, we still have a Pine Bush today. On the other hand, the Commission was formed by the NY Legislature in response to our litigation. Their paid staff are tasked with creating a plan for the preserve and manage the preserve.