On Blueberry Hill

April 30, 2009

Checking out a hotly litigated corner of
Albany’s Pine Bush on a hot day

Check out this first photo. Take a guess where it was taken:

Some Strange Land? Some Strange Land?

If you said North Africa or Mongolia you’d be mighty wrong. This photograph was taken the other day within the borders of the second oldest city in the United States, the capital of the State of New York, the former Dutch colony of Beverwick, renamed later in honor of some degenerate English lord who never visited the place. This, my friends, is the City of Albany.

I’m happy to say that this is not the South End, although this might be what my neighborhood would look like today if the Jennings administration had been allowed to have it’s way. This photo is of the part of our Pine Bush called Blueberry Hill. Those are pitch pine trees rising out of the bare sand, the only visible life forms remaining on this strange planet.

This last weekend we had a record breaking heat wave, so The Wife and I decided to cool off with a four hour midday hike through the Pine Bush sand dunes. At The Wife’s insistence, we wore heavy clothing to protect ourselves from deer ticks bearing the dreaded west nile virus. I’m telling you, by the time we finished our hike I was as parched as the mahogany desert.

The Trailhead At The Dead End Of Pitch Pine Road The Trailhead At The Dead End Of
Pitch Pine Road

We entered the Pine Bush at the trailhead at the dead end of Pitch Pine Road, an unnecessary suburban sprawl “development” from the 1980s. The cheaply constructed houses, which were looking a little tattered, generally command higher prices because they butt up against the Pine Bush preserve. The added “value” comes from the guarantee that no “developer” can build more crap houses behind these.

I noted with disgust that many of the houses sported unhealthy monoculture lawns, which are created by applying a combination of pesticides, weed killer and antibiotics. Most houses ringing the preserve appear to casually dump these dangerous chemicals on their sad grass. For sure this crud is seeping into Pine Bush preserve, quietly killing flora and fauna.

A Short Way Up The Trail A Short Way Up The Trail

After entering at the trailhead we took the first trail to the left and almost immediately this astonishing barren vista opened up. Neither I nor The Wife, who proudly calls herself an armchair environmentalist, had been to Blueberry Hill for years. So both of us were shocked and surprised by what we saw, hearing about something and seeing it for yourself are much different things.

What happened? According to The Wife (and others I’ve talked to) back in the 1970s Blueberry Hill was classic Pine Bush, a complex and diverse ecosystem of karner blue butterflies, blue lupen, buckmoths, scrub oak bushes and worm snakes. And there were ridge upon ridge of blueberry bushes. Old timers around Albany still talk about going out every year with baskets to collect the wild blueberries.

Due to a misguided policy of fire suppression, the Pine Bush ecosystem around Blueberry Hill became overgrown. This overgrowth destroyed the low lying blueberry bushes and scrub oak along with the creatures that depend on them.

After several decades of overgrowth, decaying leaves formed an unnatural layer of mulch on top of the sand. This mulch became a breeding ground for invasive species. That’s when fast growing and quick spreading white poplar and black locust broadleaf trees took over, choking out the surviving ecosystem.

Pitch Pine Tree Choked By Poplars Pitch Pine Tree Choked By Poplars

For the last ten or twelve thousand years, fire would sweep over the original 40 square miles of Pine Bush every ten or twenty years. As strange as it sounds, the plants and animals are not only adapted to periodic fires, they need fire to live. But we civilized people can no longer tolerate fire in the Pine Bush because of all these crappy sprawl houses with poisonous lawns ringing the preserve, so alternatives to fire have had to be found.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission is a quasi-governmental agency created as a direct result of lawsuits filed by Save the Pine Bush. The Commission actively manages the preserve, they created this stark landscape of bare sand dunes.

The Commission decided that Blueberry Hill was so degraded by overgrowth that the only alternative to a wildfire was to strip it down to the sand and start over, keeping only the surviving pitch pines. A radical decision to be sure, full of optimism that a ten thousand year old ecosystem can be rebuilt from the bottom up. The organisms that are needed to repopulate the stripped area are right nearby, but I wonder how long it will take to establish the original complexity, if that ever can be recreated.

Well, the Commission is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. The stripping of the dunes is done mostly with bulldozers and a device called a hydro-ax. And unfortunately they also apply chemicals to kill and dissolve the stumps of certain invasive trees, particularly the black locust. And as can be seen, they haul off all of the vegetation and mulch.

A Short Way Up The Trail Recovering Dune In The Foreground

These dunes are bare because they had been stripped last year, but they won’t stay that way long. In short order we came upon the dunes that were stripped a year or so earlier, an we could see the low lying growth had becoming reestablished. This quick recovery is how we know we are in the northeast US and not in a real desert.

It’s kind of interesting that our entire country is currently facing a quiet crisis in the slow but steady loss of our precious layer of topsoil. But here in the Pine Bush we are removing the topsoil, mulch is the enemy that destroys.

The entire day we saw only one other visitor like us, a bicyclist who stopped to talk to us. I noted when I climbed up a dune (which I’m not supposed to do) that there were absolutely no other footprints in the sand besides mine. I decided I’d better not do that again and stay on the trails, if every tourist did what I did the dunes would have a hard time recovering.

Bags Of Open Pinecones Bags Of Open Pinecones

Out in the open The Wife found a couple of bags of pitch pine pine cones left by the Commission. Pine cones cannot germinate unless they open first, and usually pitch pine pine cones don’t open unless they are exposed to fire. This is one example of how plant life in the Pine Bush needs fire to survive, thus these these open pine cones are important seed stock.

Leaving the stripped down dunes hiked through some of the remaining overgrown areas, heading toward the power line right of way. This is a corridor maintained by the power corporation monopoly so they can have ready access to their lines. As the stupid and self destructive Albany Common Council continues to approve encroachments upon this corner of the Pine Bush, this power line corridor becomes more and more important as an unassailable link between pieces of the surviving ecosystem.

Power Line Corridor Power Line Corridor

The power corporation mows this corridor once or twice a year. Believe it or not this is a good thing because it prevents overgrowth. While no trees or bushes can grow here, this artificially maintained open area supports a thriving low lying community of plant life.

We were delighted to see that the corridor was carpeted with blue lupen, the primary food and breeding ground for endangered karner blue butterflies. Now, these famous pretty little bugs are not the only threatened species in the Pine Bush, but for many years they were the main legal handle and poster child for Pine Bush preservation. Thus many of the older efforts to save the ecosystem have centered around the well-being of the karner blues.

Blue Lupen At The Power Lines Blue Lupen At The Power Lines

We were surprised to see a couple of wire fence enclosures on the corridor, meant to protect baby pitch pine trees from hungry deer. Indeed we saw several deer foraging around the power lines. In late winter and early spring they will eat anything they can digest including young trees, their foraging habits can prevent any forest or preserve from regenerating itself.

The deer problem is common to many or most natural preserves across the country, that is why I am in favor of encouraging bow hunting of deer in the Pine Bush. But lupen plants are safe from the deer because they are toxic to mammals., presumably this is why blue lupen is preferred by the karner blue butterflies. Not only are the lupen a safe place to lay eggs, it’s possible that the karner blues, like some other species of butterflies, absorb the the toxins and become unpalatable to predators.

Power Line Corridor Butterfly Hill With Pyramid Crossgates Looming Behind

The power lines led to the sad Pyramid Crossgates “Butterfly Hill” over the border of the City in Guilderland. This big sand dune was “set aside” as a “mitigation measure” for the construction of that big pile of crap known as Pyramid Crossgates Mall. From the very beginning the dune has been enclosed in a fence which cut it off from the rest of the ecosystem.

In the early years of the mall (or “maul” as The Wife likes to spell it) the Butterfly Hill was treated seriously by the thugs in suits who run the Pyramid Corporation. Or at least they put on a show of doing so. To everyone’s surprise this isolated piece of Pine Bush thrived, eventually supporting the largest population of karner blues in the region. Partly this was because of the fence, which not only kept out marauding humans but also hungry deer.

It turned out that the hill thrived also because it had a high water table that supported the dry ecosystem on the surface. But in the late 1990s, true to form, the Pyramid suits ripped open one side of the hill with bulldozers so that they could carry out one of their endless expansions of the maul. It is clear to me that these people “set aside” the hill for future “development.” rather than “preservation.”

Inside The Butterfly Hill With The Open Fence Inside The Butterfly Hill With
The Open Fence

After the Pyramid bulldozers attacked the sand dune the water table poured out for weeks, so much that the water had to be pumped day and night into the storm drains. Almost immediately the living community on top of the hill began to wither. And the once vigorous population of karner blues crashed the next year, never to recover their former numbers. Still, the community on the hill is important, and some karner blues survive.

We found the gate to the fence open, it looks like it had been open all winter. That’s how we walked into the enclosure, and it was evident that deer were wandering in. We could see stripped baby pitch pine trees all over the hill, gnawed to a stubble by the deer.

After this we had to walk out onto the pedestrian unfriendly roads of suburban Guilderland, dodging cars as we skirted around the maul. Our destination was the last outpost of more or less contiguous Pine Bush, the proposed site of the Marriot Hotel.

Power Line Corridor Proposed Hotel Site

Much of the site has been graded and covered with gravel, turned into a sort of unused parking lot. But as can be seen in the photo, a good portion is still classic Pine Bush. And while the graded areas may look ugly, there is more to the landscape than immediately meets the eye.

For example, the graded lot has turned out to be the habitat of the worm snake, an interesting reptile that has not been seen in upstate New York for more than twenty years. This snake, which looks like a big earthworm, has given Save the Pine Bush quite a bit of help delaying destruction of this site. No one knows quite what to do about the snakes, so for now everything is on hold.

Bizarre Sign On The Hotel Site Bizarre Sign On The Hotel Site

As we could plainly see during our hike, stripping down the Pine Bush, can often be the best thing for the ecosystem. In court documents, the developers and the Jennings administration have claimed that the hotel site is degraded beyond restoration, but this is false. The Commission has proven that parking lots such as this one can be turned back into thriving habitat with minimal management

The Pine Bush is extremely vulnerable to the slow march of invasive species, in this sense the ecosystem is fragile. But when it comes to roaring fire or anything that resembles the destruction caused by fire the Pine Bush is tough and irrepressible. Fire is as much a part of the Pine Bush as pitch pines, karner blues and sand dunes.

The sand is what makes the Pine Bush different from the surrounding habitats, but it is fire that keeps the Pine Bush unique. I have seen burned pitch pine trees that looked as dead as blackened two by fours spring to life in a matter of weeks and become riotously healthy.

After a wildfire, such as the one in April of 1999, the whole Pine Bush explodes with life. The ecosystem is a living phoenix which rises periodically from the ashes in joyous rebirth. It’s an astounding thing to see and contemplate, you just don’t get the same effect with management techniques.

Power Line Corridor Tromping Through Overgrowth

The Pine Bush Commission has the skills and equipment to eradicate all of the invasive species except one, the worst one of all. We could see this nasty creature’s shelters all around the edges of the beleaguered Pine Bush, habitations with their characteristic asphalt surfaces and short poisoned grass. If only we could drive out these creatures with some innovative management techniques, then maybe the Pine Bush could return to the way it was.

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