Less than 20 miles northeast of Plattsburgh,
New York, between the small towns of Chazy and Altona, you can find
one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Referred to locally
as Flat Rock the area is home to the Miner Institute and a remarkable
tree species known as the jack pine. Because of Flat Rock's delicate
biological makeup, ecologists and environmental scientists have deemed
it "extremely rare".
For the last hundred years, Flat
Rock has provided the community with a number of educational, agricultural
and financial opportunities. Around the turn of the century, William
H. Miner bought close to 2500 acres of jack pine barrens. With the
newly acquired land Miner erected a profitable blueberry business and
eventually an agricultural school now called the Miner institute. In
1972, students from Plattsburgh State University started coming to Miner
when the university adopted one of the first environmental science programs
in the country. Stephanie Stone, a student at Plattsburgh says of Miner's,
"I found out while working here that this ecosystem is really unique...you're
not gonna find many places like this in the world." Indeed she's
right, as fewer than twenty of these habitats exist globally.
What is so special about a few acres in upstate New York? The allure
lies in the fragile ecosystem and more specifically the jack pine. The
jack pine has endured OVER 10,000 years on a bed of flat sandstone with
not more than three inches of soil at any one time. Nestled among a
healthy crop of huckleberries and blueberries, the jack pines have survived
only with the aid of fire. Fires are essential to the reproduction of
the pines and help in replenishing the nutrients in the ecosystem.
The conditions by which the jack pines grow are fascinating. They grow
with very little soil on a mostly bedrock surface. Because they lack
a dense and rich soil that can hold water, they rely on a very limited
nutrient supply. Their serotinous cones, cones whose scales are glued
shut, can only lay seed after being exposed to heat high enough to melt
the pine resin. Therefore they can only thrive in a specialized, fire-prone
environment. Flat Rock is a perfect match. A small capacity for water
storage, a thin, dry soil and a heat-conducting expanse of bedrock make
it a prime target for fire during the summer months.
Photo by Leland Westie
Jack pine's serotinous
The fires, however, can pose a significant danger to the outlying community.
In 1957, a fire out of control in the pine barrens threatened neighboring
farms and properties. It left many devastated. Since that time the community
has been very wary of the possibility that it might happen again.
From the onset of Plattsburgh State's Environmental Science program,
there was interest in starting prescribed burning to preserve this fragile
ecosystem. Jack pines, compared with other trees of the pine persuasion,
have a relatively short lifespan. While white pines can live for centuries,
most jack pines start to die around the age of 80. It seemed like a
little help from humans could aid greatly in the survival of the area.
The idea of prescribed burning faced immediate opposition by landowners
who remembered the dangerous fire decades ago and the idea was soon
In 1998 an ice storm struck the northeastern United States and ravished
the delicate pine barrens. More than half of the jack pines lost the
majority of their crown. With their greenery toppled and lining the
ecosystem floor, grave and disastrous problems were foreseen.
Photo by Leland Westie
Ice damage following ice storm
The summer following the ice storm brought great worry to the towns
bordering the pines and to the environmental science community as well.
Any drought and subsequent fire would bring trouble. The branches that
had fallen to the ground became an immeasurable fuel source. Ken Adams,
a professor at Miner's since 1974 discloses: "There was a potential
for fires that would even rival those in Yellowstone
flame moving very, very fast; It could have wiped out entire towns."
This wasn't the only concern however.
If disaster struck, it might wipe out the area's jack pines altogether.
When hot air from the fire forces the cones open and float the seeds
off to beds of nutrient-rich ash, the trees reproduce best . If the
magnitude of these fires reached that which was forecasted, the seeds
would simply bake and incinerate, rendering them useless.
The concern for the ecosystem and
the surrounding properties prompted a decision by the Miner Institute.
The school's consulting forester proposed a plan that might solve the
problem. They decided to log the severely damaged areas. By doing this,
two things would be accomplished. The threat of massive fire would be
reduced as they removed a good portion of the fuel load. It was also
thought that the re-seeding process would be aided as the log skidder's
tires crushed the cones.
This new method was then acted upon
and has so far been successful. During the summer of 2001, students
visited the barrens to record the results of the regeneration process.
In the areas where branches had been mashed into the ground, new seedlings
had sprouted. The man-made approach couldn't match the results of natural
fire, but the new growth was considered enough to reduce the threat
of the ecosystem's annihilation.
Photo by Leland Westie.
New logging technique generates
For now the jack pines and the outside world have found balance. The
logging was able to meet the needs of the ecosystem as well as the coexisting
human community. While success hasn't been fully realized, the stewardship
at Flat Rock discovered a new technique that might provide answers to
jack pine questions globally.
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