All that sand was left by a glacial lake. The Pine
Bush ecosystem sitting on that sand, however, may have been created
by Native Americans practicing fire management techniques. At
least, that's what some people believe.
One of those people is Dr. Harvey Alexander, professor at the
College of St. Rose, who spoke at the Dec. 10 SPB dinner at the
Unitarian Church in Albany. Doing some fast talking, he laid out
the story of the formation of the Pine Bush for the 30-40 people
who stayed to listen.
According to Dr. Alexander, about 14,000 years ago the Mohawk
River, fed by melting glaciers, was a raging, frothing waterway
as wide and deep as the Mississippi, and carrying huge amounts
of sediment. This young river emptied into a vast lake that extended
from present-day Lake Champlain south 200 miles to Poughkeepsie,
and was some 50-60 miles at its widest. As the glaciers retreated,
the volume of water in the Mohawk decreased and the lake became
While the earlier, wilder river carried heavy sediment and rocks
into the lake, this later, quieter Mohawk carried a fine, silt-like
sand into the last remnant of the lake, which was located over
the present day Pine Bush. The sand of the Pine Bush is made of
ground up granite brought here by water from the west. These sand
particles range from .25 to .67 millimeters in width, and are
composed mostly of feldspar and quartz. The grains have sharp
edges, which indicates that the sand was covered by vegetation
immediately after the lake disappeared. If the sand had blown
about in the wind for a while, such as dunes along the sea coast
do, then the grains would have smooth, rounded edges.
Rain water passes through this sandy soil very quickly, leaving
the surface dry and nutrient poor. Plants must adapt to these
desert-like conditions, which is one major reason why the ecosystem
is different from surrounding areas. Water filtered clean by the
sand collects on top of the impervious clay underneath the sand
and forms an aquifer, which is an important source of drinking
water for the region.
Periodic fires are the key to continuation of the ecosystem. If
there are no fires to burn off organic material, humus will form
on top of the sand. This topsoil will hold rainwater and nutrients,
and plants typical of any New York forest will take root. Soon
the pitch pine, scrub oak and blue lupine will die out in the
shade of larger broad-leaf trees.
If fires are too frequent, however, the plants and animals will
have trouble surviving. Pitch pines, for example, while able to
endure the lack of water and nutrients in the Pine Bush, would
grow much better in forest humus if they could compete with broadleaf
trees. These twisted but oddly attractive pines have adapted to
low-level fires, even so that fire encourages the pinecones to
open so that the seeds can sprout. If fires are too frequent or
too hot, these trees will perish. A big spurt of growth always
happens after a fire, this because fire releases nutrients locked
up in existing organic material. If fires happen too often, these
nutrients are simply destroyed before new plant life can use them.
The Cause of Fires
by Daniel W. Van Riper, Jan./Feb. 92
Dr. Alexander adheres to the astounding theory that the periodic
fires in the Pine Bush were set throughout its existence by humans.
Native Americans, and after 1600 white settlers have been burning
off the vegetation about every ten years for the past 10,000 years.
This was done to enhance hunting and gathering conditions. If
this is true, then the flora and fauna of the Pine Bush have adapted
to human conditions. The Pine Bush is unnatural, and would never
have occurred without human intervention.
The esteemed Mr. John Wolcott lent credence to this theory by
pointing out that a number of experts have advanced this idea
in recent years.
This writer expressed strong objections. While acknowledging the
high sophistication of native culture in this region at the time
of European settlement, I expressed doubt that fire management
could have been sustained by shifting native societies over as
much as 10,000 years. Dr. Alexander countered this by pointing
out that there is strong evidence that native peoples in Africa
and Australia have been fire managing vaster regions for a much
longer time. (Dr. Alexander was kind enough to pass along an article
from Australian Natural History which tells how Australian Aborigines
have practiced "firestick farming," that is, burning
off much of the Australian grasslands every year for the past
40,000 years! The author of the article, Tim Flannery of the Australian
Museum, feels that a wave of extinctions of medium sized mammals
on the Outback from the early 1800's to present has been caused
by interruption of these yearly burnings.)
While I conceded that fire management may have occurred at various
times in the life of the Pine Bush, especially in the last thousand
years, there is no reason to think that periodic fires could not
occur naturally. Dr. Alexander felt that lightening, the most
likely source of natural fire, does not strike frequently enough
to cause regular burn-offs of vegetation. I pointed out that lightening
certainly must have struck often enough in the 40 square miles
of Pine Bush- which was its size until recently. About every ten
years or so in this region, a year or two of drought occurs after
a period of wetness. Vegetation would build up during the wet
period, and the following drought would be a time of extreme dryness
in the Pine Bush because of the nature of the soil. One lightening
strike could send up the whole region. Couldn't this become a
stable natural system?
This is much room for debate here, and members of SPB are invited
to send their comments to this newsletter.
Letters to the Pine Bush
Dear Pine Bushers:
As regards whether or not the Albany Pine Bush owes it's existence
to fires caused by lightning strikes or by Native Americans, let
me add some facts gathered by John McPhee about the ecology and
history of the New Jersey Pine Barrens:
McPhee finds it true that in the last 150 years the greatest numbers
of fires have been started by people (sometimes on purpose, sometimes
by accident). He also finds it true that certain areas of the
Barrens hardly ever receive lightning hits. However, some areas
of the Barrens seem extremely prone to lightning strikes. Some
areas of the Barrens almost seem to attract lightning hits. These
areas are, as one might expect, higher than the surrounding terrain
and face the usual path of oncoming storms. Were it not for fire
fighting efforts by man, it is possible that fires caused by lightning
strikes in lightning-prone areas could indeed sweep across the
Barrens fairly often, even burning off the brush in lightning-safe
Today's Albany Pine Bush might suffer lightening strikes too rarely
to sustain itself, but once it was connected with a much wider
Pine Bush terrain, a portion of that terrain might have been lightning
It would be interesting to outline the greatest extent of the
ancient Pine Bush, then superimpose over it a map of lightning
strikes in upstate New York over, say, the last 50 years. That
might provide a clue as to whether the Pine Bush is more man-made
(McPhee's book, published in the 1960's, I think, is called The
Barrens-if I remember rightly.)
A reader from Albany
Recent News-Controlled Burnings in Pine Bush a Success
The following is from the Times Union, Nov. 13, 1991 by Peter
A program of controlled burning in the ecologically precarious
Pine Bush went off without a hitch this fall, and managers of
the preserve are aiming to do more. "We hope they will get
bigger," said Stephanie Gebauer, director of the Albany Pine
Bush Research and Management.
A total of 44 acres of the 1700 acre preserve was burned this
spring and over the last couple of weeks, said Gebauer. The goal
is to eventually burn about 200 acres each year.
Albany Deputy Fire Chief Warren Abriel confirmed the burns were
kept under control and caused no property damage.
The Pine Bush-a patchwork area of scrubby pine (sic) and sandy
soil on the western edge of the city that spills into adjacent
towns- is home to Karner Blue butterfly, an endangered species.
Gebauer said one reason for burning is to create more open space,
which allows the wild blue lupine to grow. The lupine plant is
the sole source of nourishment for the Karner Blue.
The burning this fall started Oct. 28, accounting for 30 of the
total 44 acres burned. Fire-setting crews comprising a dozen or
so volunteers used torches fueled by diesel gasoline mixture to
ignite the fires, Gebauer said. Most of what was burned, she said,
was ground cover- grass, pine needles and low growing plants.
Gebauer said burning aids the germination of some plants because
it weakens their hard outer covering. [Pitch pine cones open during
fires- ed.] Fire tends to "top kill" plant life, scorching
the above-ground growth but leaving the roots intact.
Back to Role of Fire in
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