Schenectady County

Pine Bush tree-cutting leaves barren landscape

The chopped-down trees on East Old State Road in Guilderland in part of the Albany Pine Bush make th

The chopped-down trees on East Old State Road in Guilderland in part of the Albany Pine Bush make the landscape look stark, especially when there was no snow on the ground, as was the case for most of the winter until last week.

“It’s unattractive. It’s dramatic,” said Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission executive director Christopher Hawver. “From an aesthetics standpoint, it’s not pretty.”

Nearby residents, and likely some motorists, have been shocked at the clear-cutting of the part of the preserve along East Old State Road from the Thruway crossover to the intersection of Silver Road.

They are aspens, and the preserve has more than 1,000 acres of them. The preserve commission aims to remove many of them as part of a plan to restore the Pine Bush to its natural pitch pine-scrub oak barrens ecosystem.

The native but invasive trees connect underground in a series of roots that mean more are constantly popping up.

Two neighbors on Old State Road complained to Hawver about the felling of the trees, which started in November and continued through mid-January.

“They were concerned about the aesthetics of it,” Hawver said. The landscape looks much different now, as that stretch of East Old State Road used to be “a tunnel of aspens,” he said.

All the tree trunks remain on the ground, which looks ugly to motorists but creates a temporary food source for deer that graze on the small shoots of the trees. It would cost about $30,000 to hire a company to come in and take them away, Hawver said.

Hawver said he wants the chance to explain to neighbors who are concerned about the look of it.

“I want them to understand why. I think that’s the key.”

Gary Powell of East Old State Road, whose property shares a border with the Pine Bush, was concerned about wet basements in the area, which he said may be caused by the replacement of aspens and invasive locusts with scrub oak trees. The invasive trees suck more water from the ground than the scrub oaks, he said.

His own basement started getting water in it when the commission cleared trees on nearby Kings Road a few years ago.

“We installed a sump pump and we have been pumping every spring till the trees break dormancy and the leaves come out,” he wrote in a letter to the commission in late December.

“This summer, we pumped all summer and still have water in the bottom of the sump.”

Hawver doesn’t believe the preserve’s habitat restoration work was at fault in the groundwater issue.

Rather, wetter years seem to have raised the water table in all of Albany, Hawver said.

Just in case, the commission has hired H2H Associates of Troy to come up with a water monitoring plan.

In most of the Pine Bush, staffers kill the aspens by inserting a small amount of herbicide into drilled holes. The tree dies within a year or two and falls naturally without the herbicide killing any other nearby plants.

“The goal is to leave them standing and let them fall over naturally,” Hawver said.

But that’s not a safe option near the side of the road, because a tree could fall into the road, he said.

The preserve also uses girdling, a technique where bark is stripped off part of the trunk, preventing the tree from sending nutrients from the leaves to the roots, which kills the tree in two to three years.

“The trees eventually die,” Hawver said, but girdling requires a lot of labor. “We’re kind of losing the race against aspen.”

Aspens are native, but reproduce like crazy without periodic fire. In a natural environment, they’d cover about 5 to 10 percent of the preserve’s 3,200 acres.

Currently they inhabit 40 percent, Hawver said.

Invasive black locusts are not native and cover about 600 acres, Hawver said. Between 150 and 200 acres have already been cleared of the trees.

They can’t be killed by girdling, but have to be cut down and the stumps dug out to keep the clonal root system from sending up another tree.

The locust wood is used for making wood chips or locust posts that the preserve uses to mount trail markers or sets horizontally into the ground for erosion control.

As people familiar with the inland pine bush know, regular wildfires every five to 25 years shaped the ecosystem, clearing out forested areas and making the habitat hospitable to rare plant and animal species that thrive in the sandy, brushy area. Wild blue lupine, a plant that is a food source for the rare Karner blue butterfly, is one of them.

Nearby development and modern firefighting practice make these natural fires rare now, so staff at the Pine Bush carefully burns parts of the area each fall. Staffers prepare 600 acres for burning and usually burn much less, between 20 and 200 acres, largely dependent on the weather.

Habitat restoration, including the controlled fires, preparing the site and planting, is expensive, costing $10,000 an acre.

Fires alone cost $2,000 an acre, and the commission’s $2.4 million operating budget allows for $200,000 a year.

Restoring the habitat includes collecting seeds of the native grasses and wildflowers and planting them: wild blue lupine, dotted horsemint, little blue stem grass, big blue stem grass, New Jersey tea, bush clover, scrub oak, tick trefoil, goat’s me and butterfly milkweed.

The burned areas start to renew themselves in a few weeks, and by spring they are lush with the new grasses and wildflowers.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply