Trio wishing to preserve historic paths in the Pine Bush Preserve are too late, say commission leaders

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

At a crossroads: Standing in the Pine Bush Preserve, near where the start of the original Schoharie Road branches off from part of the original King’s Highway, Steven Rider compares old photographs by local historian William B. Efner to the scenery before him to try to gauge the location of the original start of the historic Old State Road.

GUILDERLAND — “I have always enjoyed traveling on old roads. I’m sort of an old-road nut,” said Steven Rider, a retired middle-school science teacher who has lived in Guilderland for over 40 years.

It was the historic markers on Kings Road that first got him curious, he said, leading him to start researching the King’s Highway — which dates from about 1660 and reached from the colonial stockade in Albany to that in Schenectady — and its later offshoots.

The King’s Highway, at least, Rider says, more or less followed old pathways that indigenous people in the area established as a “shortcut to get from one river to another,” he says, referring to the Hudson and the Mohawk, and allowed them to avoid the Cohoes Falls.  

It was along this road and its offshoots that the settlement of Guilderland grew up. The town’s development has wiped out most traces of the original, unpaved roads.

Rider, 68, is one of a trio of residents who have expressed concerns to the Pine Bush Preserve Commission that it is obliterating the history of the humans that built those roads, some of them centuries ago.

While Rider has a sense of discovery, piecing together clues to reconstruct the paths of the ancient roads, Joel Hecht, the stewardship director for the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, has a hand-drawn map from the 1800s in his office that clearly delineates the King’s Highway, the Palatine Road, and the Schoharie Road.

“We are aware of them, but we aren’t focused on them heavily,” said Hecht. “Our primary mission is with the ecology of the pine barrens.”

He says that, currently, the part of the Pine Bush that is protected, is divided into roughly four quadrants — “four little preserves” — bisected by the Thruway and Route 155.

Within each of those “little preserves,” he said, the commission wants to avoid fragmentation. This would make swapping current paths for the old roads unworkable.

While he said he is happy to work with those who want to acknowledge the old roads, “If they’re going to keep coming to us and saying, ‘You need to put the trail back on the old road,’ the answer at this point is going to be, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ So, as long as they’re willing to accept that, that’s fine.”

The commission’s executive director, Christopher Hawver, said this week that the commission’s plan to redesign the trail system was started in 2007, adopted in 2010, and reviewed last year.

The plan is being implemented over time, Hawver said.

The redesign plan, known as the Resource Protection and Visitor Experience Vision, is intended to encourage passive recreation in the Pine Bush, which he said means non-motorized recreation — including biking, hiking, and horseback riding — and ensure a good visitor experience while, at the same time, reducing fragmentation.

The whole idea, Hawver said, was to remove some of the interior trails.
“Fragmentation is one of those impacts on urban preserves, like this one, specifically, that has a great impact on wildlife and wildlife success.

“The idea,” he continued, “is to minimize those impacts by creating more trail-free areas within the preserve.”

According to the plan, less than 10 percent of the original extent of inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens remains. Outside the preserve, the Pine Bush ecosystem is dissected into fragments of various sizes by roads, railways, and development. Within the preserve, legal trails, illegal paths, firebreaks, and other infrastructure continue to reduce the size of contiguous wildlife habitat.

Hawver reiterated, “The management plan is not something the commission just produced on its own. It was with a couple dozen members of the public that were involved, including people from the town of Guilderland.”

Preservation proponents

Rider along with Mary Ellen Johnson, president of the Guilderland Historical Society, and K. Brian Collins, a lawyer who has used Pine Bush trails recreationally for 20 years, all wrote letters to the commission, expressing their concerns about closing historic trails.

Collins asked rhetorically, referring to the Schoharie Road, “How can a road that’s been there for 218 years be causing habitat fragmentation?” The answer, he said, is, “It’s not; it’s the other trails. You closed the wrong trail.”

“How much could it hurt to have the Schoharie Road open?” Rider asked recently. He answered rhetorically, “It’ll take two lupines away from the Karner blue butterfly?”

Rider, Collins, and Johnson all received the same letter back from Stewardship Director Joel Hecht, and provided copies to The Enterprise.

Hecht wrote that the commission’s 2010 plan set out to redesign the trail system to “accommodate passive recreational use while also reducing the fragmenting effects of interior trails as much as possible.”

Hecht’s letter continued, “Recreational impacts on wildlife are well documented and the intent was to minimize these impacts, creating larger ‘trail-free’ areas in a preserve that is already fragmented by many paved roads including the NYS Thruway and Route 155 as well as a number of secondary paved roads.”

The lay of the land

Rider believes, if nature takes over the closed trails, valuable clues to their history will be obliterated.

“It’s just so interesting to pick up clues and try to put them together,” he said. “But it’s very discouraging when the clues we have get wiped out.”

The importance of the King’s Highway, Rider says, started to fade after about 1800, when the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike, now known as Route 5, or Central Avenue, was built.

There are remnants of the King’s Highway — a road used by both armies in the French and Indian War and traveled by George Washington at least twice, says Rider — and of the Palatine Road and later its improvement, the Schoharie Road, which extended from the King’s Highway to Schoharie.

Most of these remnants lie within the Pine Bush in Guilderland.

Rider is dismayed to see that the Pine Bush Commission has now closed a connector road between the trailhead at the end of Willow Street and that at the end of Madison Avenue Extension, near Washington Avenue Extension. (See related letter to the editor.)

The closed section is part of the original Schoharie Road, dating from around 1800, says Rider, who taught for a decade at Averill Park and for more than two decades at Bethlehem.

There’s an overlap between history and science, he says. “Both scientists and historians ask, ‘How did that get to be?’ There’s a fact-finding, problem-solving process that’s very similar.

What remains

About a quarter of a mile in, along the sandy trails off Willow Street, a fence now stops access to a trail still visible jutting off to the left. There are no signs and nothing to show that the closed road is part of the historic Schoharie Road.

There is also a fence about a quarter-mile in from the trailhead at the end of Madison Avenue Extension, Rider says.

Those two fences mean that a section about a third of a mile long of the historic Schoharie Road will eventually revert back to nature and be lost forever, Rider says.

“I would like to see no more destruction of the historic roads,” Rider said. “It won’t be long till all traces of that connector trail are gone, and then it’s lost. I would like to see the connector trail opened back up.”

Another problem is the lack of signs, he says, to identify the location of now-lost historical sites and roads, to help prevent time and development from erasing them from memory.

For instance, he would like to see a marker where the original Old State Road, from 1792, began; it did not start at Route 155 where it does now, he says.

It started somewhere across the street from Kings Road, in what is now a wooded area, a stone’s throw from where the now-blocked-off Schoharie Road branches off from the King’s Highway.

The best clue to the original start of Old State Road is in the “lavish photos, detailed maps, and scrupulous notes” created by local historian William B. Efner in the 1930s, Rider says, which were part of Efner’s work researching the King’s Highway.

From those documents, Rider says, he knows an approximate location of the start of Old State Road, which went to Esperance, but anything more than that is a guess.

As to the original King’s Highway that connected Albany and Schenectady 350 years ago, there’s a small part in the woods behind the Albany NanoTech Complex, a 100-yard-or-so section near the Pine Bush Discovery Center (“down in the corner, nearest the landfill, no marker or anything,” says Rider), and a half-mile-long intact portion in the woods directly across from Kings Road.

“That’s about it,” says Rider.

None of those remnants of the King’s Highway are marked, he says.

But on a recent visit with an Enterprise reporter, Rider was surprised and happy to see posts printed with “Pine Bush” along the King’s Highway trail opposite Kings Road, suggesting that this part of the original King’s Highway has been taken into the trail system and that the public is now legally allowed to walk there.

Director responds

Hawver said he understands that people are upset and concerned about this issue, but emphasized that the commission went through a “very very rigorous planning process” and had representatives from the town of Guilderland involved — including Lindsay Childs of the Guilderland Pathways Committee; Donald Csaposs, the town’s grant writer; and Al Fiero, then a Farnsworth Middle School teacher. Also involved were Lynne Jackson and John Wolcott, both of Save the Pine Bush.

“All of this was considered,” and the commission came up with “a compromise,” Hawver said, in making the 2010 plan. He also noted that the preserve attracts about 100,000 visitors annually.

“We had a lot of input from the public. It’s not something that we’ve done completely on our own. We never do that,” Hawver said. “Everything the commission has done has gone through a public-review process.”

There was little information received from the public about historic roads at that time, he said.

The plan states, in a heading on “Historical and Archaeological Sites and Structures,” “It is important that all of the historic and archeological resources found in the Preserve be protected from vandalism, theft, and damage. They remain as a record of the ever-changing human history of the Pine Bush.”

A sub-head below that lists “Travel Routes,” and says, simply, “The Pine Bush was once criss-crossed with sand roads. Some, like the Kings Highway, were used extensively in the past while others were very temporary in nature. Often the existing Preserve recreational trails follow some of these old sand roads and provide a portion of the record of the human  history of the Pine Bush as a destination and a connection between Albany and Schenectady and other locations.”

“So we’re now hearing from folks, and that’s why we’re responding to them, and basically saying, ‘We’re willing to work with you, and maybe signage is appropriate,’” Hawver explained.

The commission is updating its website — ”So we’ll have a brand-new website,” Hawver said. “Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about it on the website, so people have a better understanding of what’s there,” he added.

The commission is not ignoring comments it has received from Rider, Collins, and Johnson, Hawver said.

“We can accommodate them as best we can, without completely reversing what we’ve done. We’re not going to totally open them up totally,” he said.

The commission is willing to work, Hawver said, with Rider and other interested members of the public to decide the best way to identify historic roads.

“If we put more information out there, more people would even know about it, than they ever did before,” Hawver said. “We’re willing to work with folks if they want to talk to us and see what we can come up with together.”

Hawver noted that parts of these roads are used as part of the trail system.

As for those that are not, Hawver said that, being part of the preserve is a form of preservation.

“I would suggest that these historic features are still indeed preserved, as are all the lands of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, whether or not they are used as a trail. To be no longer preserved would be lost to development, in my opinion,” he said.

More Guilderland News

  • The now-1,200 square-foot Pakistani restaurant will be housed in the former Subway sandwich shop. The space has been under construction for some time, but now, with a permit in hand, it can open for business. Nadia Raza, Curry Patta’s owner, told The Enterprise she anticipates opening the weekend of Dec. 4.

  • All Guilderland schools, including the middle school and high school with new coronavirus cases, are remaining open for in-person instruction.

  • The fifth case, at Guilderland High School, was announced Wednesday in an email from Superintendent Marie Wiles. That last case forced the high school to all-remote learning, beginning on Thursday, Nov. 19, and lasting until Thanksgiving break, which starts on Tuesday, Nov. 24.

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