The badly deteriorated Woodlawn Preserve will become a Pine Bush sanctuary, management plan director Don Rittner hopes, as he begins to write the plan for the wilderness area.
“We’ll make it a real nice public preserve,” he said.
He anticipates well-marked trails leading to sandy dunes and fields of lupine flowers where Karner blue butterflies may eventually live.
While environmentalists have insisted for years that the preserve’s Pine Bush ecology could be restored, Schenectady City Council members said the future of the preserve was uncertain when they accepted a $25,200 state grant to write a management plan for the area. Much of the Pine Bush ecology has been overrun by invasive plants, and council members said they didn’t know if the land could recover.
But Rittner was determined to save the unusual sandy ecosystem. Using the contacts he made from decades of work at the Albany Pine Bush, he has called together top-ranked scientists to develop a plan for the long-ignored preserve.
The scientific committee will be headed by Robert Dirig, who has studied the Pine Bush for 34 years.
“He’s the one who did a lot of the early work on the Karner blue [butterfly],” Rittner said. “I’m not having lightweights on this.”
Dirig, too, is dedicated to saving the preserve as a Pine Bush system.
“Because of the very, very special nature of the Pine Bush, it’s important to restore every scrap,” he said. “There are very rare things in the plants and the insects.”
Many endangered species rely on the plants in the Pine Bush, although most of the public focus is on the Karner blue butterfly. The butterfly used to live in the Woodlawn Preserve — Rittner found a colony in 1978 — but they cannot survive there now because the only food the caterpillar can eat, the lupine, has been killed off by invasive plants.
The butterfly still exists in the Albany Pine Bush, where many lupine flowers are planted every year, and both Dirig and Rittner think the butterflies will spread to the Woodlawn Preserve if the lupine is replanted there. Cocoons can also be taken from the Albany Pine Bush and transplanted to the Woodlawn Preserve.
Lupine is the key, Dirig said.
“The original reports of Karner blues from the 1860s talk about solid acres of lupine,” Dirig said. “The blues were so common the air just shimmered when they were flying. They used nets back then, rather than just watching and taking photos, but the measure was you could sweep a net and catch 30 in one swoop.”
As late as the 1970s, visitors to the Albany Pine Bush could find thousands of butterflies in July, when they emerge from their cocoons.
“Now you see one butterfly, it made your year,” Rittner said. “You’ll never get that population again, because there’s not enough habitat to support those numbers anymore.”
But, Dirig said, restoring the preserve would help.
One of the biggest unresolved questions now is whether the management plan will propose using controlled burns to cut back the invasive species. The pines in the preserve evolved to withstand fire, and their sticky cones do not begin new trees until a fire sweeps over them.
Some residents have expressed anxiety about fires near their neighborhood. Rittner said he will hold public meetings, at which such issues can be determined.
But Dirig said fire is almost an absolute necessity.
“That whole system is a fire-dependent vegetation system,” he said. “That of course is a real challenge in developed areas.”
There are other options, he added.
“I do think that with a lot of effort you can get rid of invasive species,” he said.
Volunteers can painstakingly “girdle” invasive trees, stripping off a circle of bark to kill the tree over time. Children at schools near the Albany Pine Bush take field trips to plant lupine and beat back the invasive species.
Also still unknown is whether the city will manage the preserve after Rittner finishes the management plan. Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard said the city has discussed giving the land to the Albany Pine Bush, although that agency is currently restricted to managing land in Albany County.
But she hopes the city keeps the preserve.
“It might not cost so much that we couldn’t manage it ourselves,” she said.
Either way, Rittner is confident that the preserve will eventually have a healthy Pine Bush ecology. He can’t wait to get started.
“It’s something I spent most of my life studying. It’s one of the most unique ecosystems in the United States,” he said. “And it has a fascinating human history. The people who lived there — these were true pioneers. When you combine the human history with the natural history, there’s no place like it in the world.”