New version of conservation plan highlights local areas of environmental importance

View of clouds over Albany from the Helderberg escarpment

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
A bird's-eye view from the Helderberg escarpment reveals the wooded landscape below. 

A new version of the “blueprint” for New York State’s conservation efforts, the Open Space Conservation Plan, has been released, highlighting an interconnected look at ecosystems across the state. Looking at different regions, the plan also emphasizes the importance of natural landmarks in Albany County such as the Helderbergs, Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, and the Albany Pine Bush.

“It’s a very important document,” said Mark King, who co-chaired the plan’s advisory committee for the local region.

King said that the plan’s policies will also emphasize funding small projects, such as the newly created Hilton Park in New Scotland.

“That’s a great case,” he said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo had revealed at the beginning of last year that the state would allocate 300 million dollars to its Environmental Protection Fund, the highest amount seen for the fund since its founding in 1993.

Much of the funding for efforts advised in the plan is likely to come from the fund, said King.

“The state has a pot of money for these projects,” he said. “If it’s recognized, it helps set up funding for these sites.”

New York State released its 2016 edition of its Open Space Conservation Plan in December. The plan, which last had a version released in 2009, highlights environmental protection goals across the state.

The state’s overall goals include improving water quality and addressing climate change, as well as preserving open space and the state’s diverse wildlife. Describing the approach to land conservation as a “holistic view of the interconnections between our natural resources,” the plan stresses the linkage of landscapes and ecosystems across regions and property parcels.

The plan also includes advised goals for specific areas of the state, divided into the Department of Environmental Conservation’s nine regions.

King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, served as co-chair of the plan’s advisory committee for Region 4, made up of Albany, Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Montgomery, Otsego, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and Schoharie counties. King said that this was his third time serving as co-chair of the committee, alongside Mark Fitzsimmons, who served as the planner for the Department of Natural Resources of Albany County before retiring.

King said the plan serves to highlight areas of the state in need of protection, places like the Albany Pine Bush, the Helderbergs, and Five Rivers in Albany County.

The Albany Pine Bush

The Albany Pine Bush, located in Albany County and a small part of Schenectady County, is made up of a rare ecosystem, an inland pine barren, where pitch pines are scattered across a sandy-soil landscape. Much of what is advised in the plan is land conservation and protecting the land from public impact, including securing an additional 2,180 acres for the preserve.

King describes the Albany Pine Bush as an unusual ecosystem. It is just one of 20 inland pine barrens in the world; and, besides Thacher Park, it is the only recognized National Natural Landmarks in the area.

“It’s a very different spot, and it’s unique,” said King. “The Pine Bush has very specific recommendations.”

Home to wildlife like the Karner blue butterfly on the federal list of endangered species, King explained that there has been considerable scientific and ecological work done on the park.

The plan also recommended focusing on and expanding conservation of the Woodlawn section of the Pine Bush, an area in Schenectady County.

The Helderbergs

Unlike the Albany Pine Bush, which has a distinct ecosystem, King describes the Helderbergs as an almost undefinable ecosystem because of its range, with bedrock outcroppings and caves as well as forested slopes and wetlands. Rather, its preservation focuses on maintaining that swath of land for wildlife conservation.

“We’re very interested in building a larger area to create a wildlife corridor,” said King.

Such a corridor could support a wide range of animals, from black bears to salamanders.

The plan describes the Helderbergs as a host to amphibian diversity rivaling New England, two of the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Areas, and a park containing more fern species than any other site in the state.

An area of note sits at the foot of the Helderbergs, the Vly Creek Marsh. This habitat, said King, hosts a number of rare or endangered species, or “species of greatest conservation need.” This is mainly reptiles and salamanders, in particular the spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, a state-listed species of special concern.

But King also noted that species like the endangered peregrine falcon or even the uncommon occurrence of a raven nesting make the Helderbergs a prime spot for species preservation.

A trail noted separately in the plan, The Long Path, runs partly through the Helderbergs. The 360-mile trail starts at the George Washington Bridge in New York City and ends in Altamont; the original plan was for it to extend to the Adirondacks. The new state plan looks to have New York acquire land to protect the trail corridor and allow sections to be rerouted from public roads.

Five Rivers

The Five Rivers Environmental Education Center is highlighted in the plan for its popularity; it receives over 100,000 visitors annually.

“I believe it’s the most heavily used of the wildlife centers that the state runs,” said King.

He added that the Center, situated in both the towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland is threatened with encroaching development, as the construction of homes and businesses increases. The plan advises furthering land protection as a buffer against encroaching development, including the Phillipinkill stream corridor in the northeastern section of the preserve.

Conservation and Linkage

King emphasized that the plan is advising how to go about preserving land and natural resources.

“Just because things are identified in the plan doesn’t mean they would happen,” he said.

However, King says much of what is advised for individual sites has a theme of connectedness, keeping parklands and other resources from becoming “islands of protected area.”

“Linkage is a big thing,” he said. “We’re beginning to recognize finally that connectedness helps everyone.”

King pointed out that linkage not only assists in preservation, but also recreation, pointing out aspirations to eventually connect the end of the Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail on South Pearl Street in Albany to the Corning Preserve, and eventually to other rail trails in the state.

“You could ride from Voorheesville all the way to Buffalo,” he said of a bicyclist.


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