By TIM ROWLAND
Mark Lesser, a forestry instructor at the State University of New York Plattsburgh, was vacationing in Nova Scotia in the second week of July when his cell phone lit up with texts and tweets. The Altona Flat Rock pine barrens were on fire just beyond the Park’s northeast boundary.
But these texts and tweets weren’t out of alarm. They were messages of elation. As Lesser put it, “People have spent their whole careers waiting for the Flat Rock to burn.”
The destruction of 550 acres of the fifteen-square-mile Altona Flat Rock Forest is, in fact, a scientist’s dream. As the last of the drones flew over the charred landscape looking for hotspots, scholars and conservationists from far and wide awaited word from firefighters that it was safe to move in. One scientist, up from Albany, was only half joking when he said, “This is great; now let’s burn the other half.”
In seriousness, Lesser said the scientists’ primary concern was for life and property. But once everyone was made safe, the excitement took hold. “This is such a unique ecosystem for Northern New York,” Lesser said. “It’s like a playground.”
For a generation or more, the fire will be teaching lessons about forest regeneration, climate change and wildlife habitat. It is also a reminder that catastrophic events in and around the Blue Line, be they fire, ice storms or derechos, are in the long run good for the ecology, no matter how heartbreaking the damage might seem at the outset. Quite simply, the Altona Flat Rock needed fire to thrive.
It might be an extreme example because it has a limited number of species, but the same lessons apply to the greater Adirondack northern hardwood forest. “The northern hardwood forest isn’t supposed to burn as it did at Altona,” Lesser said. “(But) events like ice storms and wind storms create gaps in the canopy that creates a mosaic of forest succession.”
Forests germinate, grow old, die and regenerate, all as nature planned. “That’s what a healthy forest should look like,” Lesser said.
The most famous beneficiaries of the fire are blueberries and jack pines. Through the early part of the last century, the barrens were burned on purpose in order to regenerate the blueberry crop, which was an important part of the North Country economy. Families would camp on the Flat Rock in summer and send blueberries by the truck- and train-full to the cities.
The barrens are just about the southernmost extension of the jack pine, a rare species whose cones remain rock-hard until exposed to the heat of a forest fire. Throughout the burn area, cones on blackened trees have popped wide open, and the result is already evident.
Lesser said most people visiting the area for the first time after the fire expect to see a charred moonscape. Instead, the Flat Rock, just two months after the fire, was already exploding with life. A feathery green blanket of blueberries and huckleberries was pushing up through the char, and inch-high jack pine seedlings were taking hold. This new growth is feeding off the nutrients provided by the ash, and as dead, burned trees fall and decay, even more food will be available to the Flat Rock vegetation.
Working in conjunction with the Miner Institute, which, along with the state and the Nature Conservancy, owns the bulk of the barrens, Plattsburgh students are mapping out the burn area and counting the seedlings, as well as monitoring heat and humidity, trapping insects and getting a glimpse of wildlife activity with trail cams. Lesser said the fire has created a “baseline” that will be useful for decades. For example, the pines being at their southernmost range, there is a question how the seedlings will handle a warming planet, if at all. Older trees are hardier, but delicate seedlings will be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The students will study the effects of snowfall, and are fencing off areas from deer to see how delicate the seedlings are to browsing wildlife. “This is so much more meaningful to the students, because the data they’re gathering is important,” Lesser said.
It is also an important lesson in the life cycle of the forest. The Adirondack Park as a whole has been historically immune to big fires, to the point that it is known as the “asbestos forest,” said Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Forester Kris Alberga. Severe fires at the turn of the twentieth century have left lasting scars on the landscape, but they were the artificial creation of years of logging that left deep piles of dry slash that acted as an unnatural accelerant. There has also been the occasional dry year, such as the “red summer” of 2002, that caused more burns than normal, but for the most part the deep, moist humus acts as an effective fire retardant.
When fires do occur, state law prohibits jurisdictions from allowing them to burn naturally, so there is less likelihood of large burn-offs.
Changes or regeneration in the Adirondack forest are more likely to be caused by ice storms, microbursts, straight-line winds or the remnants of hurricanes. “It’s the wind and ice events that change the forest composition,” Alberga said.
Hurricane Floyd, for example, created a major blowdown in 1999, which at the time was devastating for hikers and trail stewards, but in the long run encouraged new growth by allowing in sunlight through the great holes it had ripped in the canopy. Almost immediately, birch and maple seedlings sprouted, creating food and habitat for wildlife and creating a patch of young woods. “It amazes me how fast the forest responds,” Alberga said.
These regenerative events are important, because ideally a healthy forest will have old, middle-age and young growth. The Adirondacks skew heavily toward the middle, Lesser said, so storm damage that is aesthetically horrifying is actually not a bad thing at all.
The Flat Rock is not the majestic forest of the Adirondack Park, but a scruffy collection of jack pines and a tangle of low berry bushes. Appreciating the beauty of the Flat Rock is something of an acquired taste. The lack of traditional beauty, however, is compensated for with an ecology that is like few others worldwide—twelve, to be exact. Stepping from the traditional northern hardwood forest onto the sandstone pine barrens is like throwing a switch, entering a world where the vegetation clings to soil that’s two or three inches deep, and great swaths of table-flat stone are exposed as clean as if they’d been scraped by a dozer. Dry and hot, the Flat Rock is a pepperbox that almost pleads to be burned with some regularity. Even so, it had been 60 years since the last meaningful fire.
“I’ve been awaiting an ecologically significant fire at Flat Rock since my introduction to the pine barren in 1974,” said Ken Adams, a retired SUNY professor of forest ecology, and the person current professors revere as being the primary Flat Rock authority. “Forests are more than trees, so it’s important to understand the effects of fire on all components of a forest ecosystem, including soils, vegetation, and wildlife habitat.”
After waiting all these years, Adams has been unable to visit the burn site to date because of coronary bypass surgery, but said he is looking forward to visiting the barrens next summer, and in the meantime is closely watching the research of the current crop of students and educators.
Danielle Garneau, associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh, said her students will study the effects of the fire on wildlife. “We’re very excited about this, and it looks like we’re in for a long study,” Garneau said. The students and scientists will be able to identify winners and losers in the aftermath of the fire, some of which will be obvious, others not.
The flush of nutrients in the pine barrens will feed plants such as blueberries that are regenerated by fire, and that has a clear effect on wildlife. “It’s going to bring in black bears galore,” Garneau said.
Woodpeckers will thrive when insects begin to populate the dead snags, and some species benefit from the lack of cover. Owls and raptors have better sight lines and flight paths, which is good news for them, but less so for the mice and other small animals on which they feed.
Other animals benefit spatially from the burned forest. “The numbers of flying squirrels rebound when they don’t have dense underbrush” to contend with, Garneau said. By contrast, birds such as the ruffed grouse and the whip-poor-will that nests on the ground will find they have lost their protection. Garneau said she expects these species to disappear for a while before they begin to move back in.
Students are being immersed in a Flat Rock program, studying not just trees and wildlife, but insects, soil and climate. “We were fortunate to have taken the class in right after this happened,” said Plattsburgh student Sean Spellman. “By the end of the semester, we’ll know something we didn’t know before.”