New Plans for Young Forests in New York

by H. Rose Schneider for the Altamont Enterprise

Prescribed burns are scheduled every year at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, once every 10 years for each habitat site. They promote the health of the preserve.

ALBANY COUNTY — It may seem counterintuitive, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation is looking to remove trees in various protected areas across New York State.

A plan by the DEC includes 10-year plans for two protected areas in Albany County. The Louise E. Keir Wildlife Management Area is a 187-acre area in the town of Coeymans, and features an uncommon, fire-dependent habitat — a pitch pine-oak-heath rocky summit. The Margaret Burke Wildlife Management Area is a 245-acre habitat in the town of Knox. Both have suffered from a decline in young forest habitat.

Prescribed burn at Albany Pine Bush

Prescribed burning at Albany Pine Bush Preserve helps keep scrub oak-pitch pine habitat healthy, benefiting wildlife such as prairie warblers, whip-poor-wills, box turtles, and Karner blue butterflies.

The DEC’s Young Forest Initiative, begun in 2014, has a goal of establishing at least 10 percent of each Wildlife Management Area, or WMA, with young forest habitats. In the early 1900s, New York had more farmland than forest, but this has shifted — over half of the state has forests that are moving toward more mature trees. Many species of wildlife are in decline because they live all or part of their lives in young forest habitats.

Species in trouble include birds like the ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and scarlet tanager; mammals like the New England cottontail; amphibians like the blue-spotted salamander; and insects like the bumblebee and the Karner blue butterfly. In fact, the New England cottontail could become endangered or go extinct, said Rick Georgeson, spokesman for DEC Region 4, if young forests continue to decline.

“Unless we actively create more young forest, many wild creatures — including a host of colorful songbirds — will rarely be seen or heard,” said Georgeson in an email to The Enterprise. “New York will become even more dominated by mature woodlands, affording fewer habitat options for wildlife.”

The decline of young forests is largely manmade, said Neil Gifford, conservation director for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. Natural disasters like flooding or wildfires would, in an underdeveloped area, destroy mature forests and clear the way for young forests to grow, but such natural disasters are currently prevented from damaging habitats.

According to Georgeson, young forests have also declined as human activities like logging and land development have changed over the years, and also as habitats have grown into mature forests.

A young forest habitat is “kind of between a field and forest,” said Gifford. The Pine Bush is home to pitch pines, which are a type of tree that thrives in young forests, and, in order to preserve their habitat, prescribed fires and tree thinning must be conducted.

Karner blue butterfly

Karner blue butterfly./K. Breitsch

Gifford said that a prescribed burn is not for every young forest environment, but that the sandy-soil pine barren is a fire-dependent habitat, meaning that fire can stop more aggressive plants from taking over, allowing fire-dependent plant species to flourish after a fire. Prescribed fire is used in the Pine Bush annually, with a burn occurring at a certain site every 10 years, said Gifford. Tree thinning also occurs in the preserve, usually before a prescribed burn on a given site.

In order to give notice of tree thinning or a prescribed burn, Gifford said that the preserve sends postcards to neighbors and puts up billboards notifying passersby, as well as notices in newspapers.

Louise E. Keir WMA

The Louise E. Keir WMA pitch pine-oak-heath rocky summit community is located in the highest elevations of the area. Considered to be within the state rankings of apparently secure or almost secure, the ecological community is under threat of other trees shading out the pitch pine.

In order to preserve the protected area’s young forests, including the pitch pine’s habitat, tree-thinning has been scheduled under the DEC’s habitat management plan until 2025. This includes clearcutting of white pines and oaks, selective cutting of undesirable species in the scrub oak forest, and planting pitch pine seedlings. A prescribed burn could be planned in the pitch pine-oak-heath rocky summit community, if deemed feasible.

A fire plan is currently being drafted by the DEC forest rangers and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, said Georgeson. If approved by the DEC, trained crews will conduct prescribed burns during safe weather conditions, using firebreaks — which stop fire from spreading — and other specialized equipment to control the fire.

Margaret Burke WMA

The Margaret Burke WMA currently does not have any young forest habitat. Rather, it contains forest, shrubland, grassland, and wetland. The goal of the habitat management plan is to cultivate 38 acres of young forest in the protected area, or 16 percent of the land. This would decrease the older forest from 181 acres to 143 acres, or 74 to 58 percent of the land. Other habitats would not change.

According to Georgeson, a majority of this WMA had land cleared for farming in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a portion was kept as farmland until it was given to the state in 1958. Since then, the fields that grew into young forests have since grown into intermediate-aged and mature forests.

The plan is to restore habitat necessary for foraging, nesting, and brood rearing of bird species like the American woodcock, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse. The American woodcock needs open areas for mating; wild turkeys need more open areas for strutting, in which a turkey fans its feathers as a form of courting; and the ruffed grouse needs an area of downed trees for drumming, a noise made from beating wings to assert territory or attract mates.

Up until 2025, the DEC plans to cultivate young forest habitats by clearcutting red and white pines, hardwoods, hemlocks, and invasive species. Natural regeneration is to be allowed to create a young forest habitat. Mowing the grassland habitat is also called for.

In both WMAs, private contractors will conduct timber sales and other forestry management. According to Georgeson, they will follow timber-sale procedures set forth by the DEC. DEC staff may perform some forestry work that is not considered commercially valuable.