Albany Pine Bush, Hudson River Valley, New York

An Urban Oasis for Wildlife and People

Albany Pine Bush Preserve protects a pitch-pine scrub-oak barrens a scant six miles from New York’s capitol building. At the preserve’s south end Interstate 87, the Adirondack Northway, meets I-90, the New York State Thruway. Parts of the preserve abut the Albany landfill and the sprawling development of the town of Colonie.

Walking on trails through the Pine Bush, visitors hear trains, traffic, and jets rumbling overhead. They may also hear the zee zee zee song of a prairie warbler, the cheeky Drink-your-tea! of an Eastern towhee, and the liquid warbling of an American woodcock’s aerial breeding display. They may watch a spotted turtle burying its eggs in the soil, or glimpse a Karner blue butterfly sipping nectar from a wild blue lupine.

Karner Blue butterfly

The endangered Karner blue butterfly inhabits the Albany Pine Bush./Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission

The Pine Bush’s rolling terrain formed from the remains of an immense lake that covered the region when Pleistocene glaciers were melting 15,000 years ago. The sandy soil is low in nutrients; the rugged plants that grow here evolved to survive in poor soils, and to withstand drought and the wildfires that periodically sweep through barrens habitats under natural conditions. As well as pitch pine and scrub oak, the vegetation includes dwarf willow and cherry, New Jersey tea, huckleberry, blueberry, sweetfern, and native prairie grasses such as big and little bluestem. Plenty of wild animals live here as well, including some that require this hardscrabble habitat.

Says Preserve conservation director Neil Gifford, “We’re working to restore the Pine Bush as a functioning ecosystem. At the same time, we’re also conserving an urban oasis for the benefit of people. There used to be an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 acres of pitch-pine scrub-oak barrens in the Albany area. Our goal is to preserve and reclaim a bit over 5,000 of those acres.”

A Butterfly Got Things Rolling

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and the City of Albany began protecting land here in the early 1970s, mainly to help the Karner blue, a handsome, thumbnail-sized butterfly that’s on the federal Endangered Species list. Says Gifford, “The Pine Bush is actually a savannah – not a prairie, not a forest, but something in between.” A critically important habitat for creatures like the Karner blue, barrens such as the Pine Bush function as relatively permanent source habitats from which wildlife and plants can repopulate smaller, more-ephemeral patches of young forest that tend to move around on the landscape.

Controlled burn at Albany Pine Bush Preserve

Crews use controlled fires to renew pitch-pine scrub-oak habitat./Albany Pine Bush Preserve

As the area around Albany developed, people suppressed the wildfires that once naturally renewed the Pine Bush every few years. They also brought in new plants – among them black locust, a tree that grows quickly and spreads widely.

Says Gifford, “Locust is our biggest weed, both figuratively and literally. The tree is a legume, which means it can capture nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil through its roots. The addition of nitrogen to barrens soil allows organic matter to build up – matter that once was scoured away by wildfires. Locust can turn a barrens into woods within a decade. We have plenty of woodland in the Northeast – it’s not an endangered habitat. Pitch-pine scrub-oak barrens, on the other hand, are imperiled habitats.”

Gifford and his colleagues have developed a method of turning locust woodland back into pine barrens. First, machines log off the trees, grind up the stumps, and rake the roots out of the ground. The conservationists come back a year later and get rid of any remaining locust sprouts – lop them off with shears, then apply a short-lived herbicide to the cut stems. Once the locust is banished, the site gets seeded with native barrens plants.

Fire on the Land

Next comes fire, in the form of prescribed burns: carefully planned and executed burns that “set back the clock on the vegetation,” as Gifford puts it. Fires are kept small, usually around 20 acres and never larger than 50 acres. Flames and intense heat kill the above-ground parts of scrub oaks, and the shrubby trees respond by sending up dense new shoots from their root systems.

It’s a challenge to use fire in an urban setting. Habitat managers must make sure that burns don’t get out of control and must keep smoke from drifting across roads and into developed areas.

Restored pitch-pine scrub-oak barrens habitat

Pitch pines stand above scrub oak in restored habitat in Kings Highway Barrens./Albany Pine Bush Preserve

Says Gifford, “We’ve done a lot of trial-and-error management using different combinations of mechanical treatments and fire. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We monitor wildlife to see which species benefit from different techniques.”

The ideal resulting habitat is a patchy mix of thick, regrowing scrub oak interrupted by openings carpeted with grass and other low plants, along with scattered pitch pines and an occasional red oak. Restored to such a state, a barrens can be maintained indefinitely through periodic burning.

Wildlife Respond in a Big Way

“We see huge numbers of woodcock in our restored areas,” Gifford says. “Prairie warblers are super-abundant there,” along with whip-poor-wills, towhees, kingbirds, brown thrashers, field sparrows, and indigo buntings. “Golden-winged warblers were once common in the Pine Bush, and we hope that by turning unbroken scrub-oak thickets into more-open barrens we’ll get golden-wings back here too.”

Smooth green snake

Smooth green snakes thrive in grassy habitats restored through burning./J. Mays

Reptiles include smooth green snakes, hognose snakes, spadefoot and Fowler’s toads, and box, wood, and spotted turtles. Rare insects that live in the Pine Bush, in addition to the Karner blue butterfly, include little-known species with curious names, such as the inland barrens buckmoth, dusted skipper, frosted elfin, and bird dropping moth. It’s possible that the area supports New England cottontails, a rare native rabbit, although studies need to be undertaken to find out for certain. In all, 45 New York species of greatest conservation need (animals whose populations have fallen drastically in recent decades) call the Pine Bush home.

“Since 1991, we’ve done cutting and burning on around 1,700 acres,” says Gifford. “Those 1,700 acres can all be considered young forest.” About half of the area is owned by the state of New York, and The Nature Conservancy and different local municipalities own the rest.

The Pine Bush draws more than 10,000 people a year. Some come for the birding, while others look for Karner blues or seek a respite from urban life through hiking on more than 20 miles of trails. Many stop at the Discovery Center to learn from exhibits, watch films, and attend programs explaining the barrens' fascinating intricacy.

Says Gifford, “As conservationists, we need the public’s support to make and maintain this extremely valuable habitat. We need their informed consent.

“We’re within the boundaries of the capital city of New York; we’re under the microscope here. If we can clearcut 50, 60 acres at a time, if we can put fire on the ground in this urban, highly visible, politically charged setting – that tells us this kind of much-needed habitat management can be done almost anywhere.”

Partners

Representatives of The Nature Conservancy, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, City of Albany, Towns of Colonie and Guilderland, Albany County, and citizen representatives make up the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.

How to Visit

Check out the Albany Pine Bush Preserve website for information, including hours of operation for the Discovery Center, 195 New Karner Rd., Albany NY 12205, phone 518-456-0655. A loop trail in the Kings Highway Barrens leads through excellent restored barrens habitat.