Filling in the jigsaw puzzle to protect Pine Bush lands

Rare gray birch trees

— Photo from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission
Rare gray birch trees spring from native sedges in a 20.9-acre parcel recently purchased by the Pine Bush Preserve commission for $50,000.

ALBANY COUNTY — Two properties totalling over 28 acres have been added to the Pine Bush Preserve, bringing to 3,350 the total number of protected acres.

The Albany Pine Bush is what remains of a globally rare inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens that once covered over 40 square miles.

The new properties represent two firsts for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, which has an ultimate goal of protecting 5,380 acres.

A 7.2-acre property is the first individual donation — from the Cirillo Family Partnership, to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. 

A 20.9-acre parcel was purchased at fair market value directly by the commission using its new ability to buy real property from those who want to add their land to the preserve.

Last year, state legislation allowed the commission, which was founded in 1988, to acquire land directly, as well as in partnership with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.

Of the Cirillo Family donation, Christopher Hawver, executive director of the commission, recalled, “The family patriarch came into the Discovery Center and wanted to speak with me about donating property.”

Hawver has been director for 27 years. “It’s the first time we’ve had anyone do that,” he said. “And we’ve had protected lands going back to the seventies. Usually, people will say, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.’

“With this, there was no quid pro quo,” Hawver said. The family wanted nothing in return; they “just liked what we are doing,” said Hawver. He speculated, “Maybe they were sick of paying taxes. It’s a lot of wetlands, but he could have developed the front of the property.”

The Friends of the Pine Bush Community contributed funding through its Land Protection Fund to help defray the acquisition costs for the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which then donated the property to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation for dedication to the Pine Bush Preserve.

Located on Albany Street in Colonie, the 7.2-acre tract, Hawver said, “has nice intact hardwood and nice gray birch,” which are unusual, Hawver said.

It adjoins land owned by The Nature Conservancy.

“From a development standpoint, it’s not attractive, but from a Pine Bush viewpoint, it’s very attractive,” Hawver concluded.

The 20.9-acre parcel is similarly mostly wetlands. The commission purchased it for $50,000, Hawver said, and closed the deal three weeks ago.

The direct purchase, he said, was made possible by recent legislation sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and Republican Senator George amedore, and signed into law by the governor last December.

“Over the last several decades,” Hawver said, “the property we’ve added has been through commission members” — for example, through the town of Guilderland or through New York State.

We have the authority to manage it,” Hawver said of acquired properties. “But we’ve never held title.”

Hawver went on, describing the reason for the new legislation, “There’s a big demand for open space across the state, from the Adirondacks to the Catskills to Long Island … People want to sell their lands, but the state is backed up 24 to 36 months.”

Hawver stressed that it was “no fault of the state,” but merely because so many were waiting in line. Often, people willing to sell their land don’t want to wait two or three years to do it, he said.

The commission has “modest reserves,” Hawver said, but enough to pay for the 20.9-acre parcel. That parcel, he explained is now in a queue, waiting for the state to use its Environmental Protection Fund to pay for the land. The Pine Bush Preserve Commission will then have its reserve replenished so it can buy other property in the future.

State Environmental Conservation Law requires that the Preserve Management Plan be reviewed and, if necessary, updated every five years. “The 2017 plan is our most recent,” said Hawver.

That plan encompassed a study area of 13,000 acres with the ultimate finding that 5,380 acres should receive “full protection.” Hawver shared a “vision map”, which he explained “identifies all the lands we want protected — basically all the remaining open space.”

The central goal, Hawver said is simple: “Reduce fragmentation.”

“That’s important for species’ movement and also for people recreating,” he said.

While the two new parcels won’t add to the preserve’s 20 miles of trails because of their wetlands, Hawver said, they are nevertheless important, not for recreational uses but because “they’re adding to the jigsaw puzzle.”

He went on, “We haven’t added land in several years … The last few were part of mitigation.” For example, he said, when the city of Albany expanded its landfill into the Pine Bush in 2009, land was received in return.

The commission is continuing to reclaim and restore property used for the landfill, Hawver said. About 50 acres has been restored so far, and ultimately 100 acres will be, he said.

“The most important point to get across,” Hawver concluded, is: “Most people think the Pine Bush is done … They think the rest is all developed, that it’s all been lost.”

But, pointing to the “vision map,” he said, “Look at it. There’s another 2,000 acres out there. The idea is to fill that jigsaw puzzle in. We still have a lot of work to do.”

More Guilderland News

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  • Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber is expecting a 20-percent reduction in sales-tax revenues for the second quarter, which amounts to a loss of about half-of-a-million dollars. But, he said, the town, is “in fairly good shape” financially since it has “healthy reserves,” which he described as being “in the millions of dollars.” He has no immediate plans to lay off or furlough town workers.

  • Three incumbents — Herb Hennings, Mark Keeling, and Phil Metzger — are running to keep their seats on the Guilderland Public Library Board of Trustees. They are being challenged by Marcia Alazraki and Richard Rubin.

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