Life on the Rock

Miner Institute in Chazy finds a safe way to put the "fire" into a rare
species of tree, jack pine.

By Leland Westie

 

 

SPRING 2002

 

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".

From blueberries to million-dollar dams, William Miner made great contributions to the North Country.

Photo courtesy of AESP Plattsburgh State University

The Miner Institute, Chazy, NY

 

 

 

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 cones.

 


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 abandoned.


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 of 1998.

 


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 …walls of 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 life.

 


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.

Questions or Comments? E-mail us at editor@apn.com

 


To someone unfamiliar with William H. Miner's character, the purchase of over 5,000 acres in upstate New York between 1910 and 1920 may have seemed to be an ostentatious display of his wealth. Yet the land, now called Flat Rock, changed his life, affirmed his dreams and enabled a legacy.


Miner's passion was with the rake and hoe. A farmer by trade, he put the land to good use. With clear-cut determination, he established what would soon be one of the most well known farms in the northeast. Heart's Delight Farm, as he called it, became a landmark for quality fruits and vegetables. The standard he set for his products was legendary as restaurants worldwide purchased his harvest.


However, Miner's talent and industry weren't limited to farming. In 1910, he decided to build a dam that would cost him one million dollars and hold one billion gallons of water at full capacity. These numbers were virtually unfathomable at the time, yet Miner was committed to provide his farm and the surrounding community with hydroelectric power. In 1915 the dam was finished and produced power successfully for seven years until equipment failure forced its closing. It was never able to reach Miner's original expectations.


While the power production didn't fly for Miner, his hand in the blueberry business did. For fifty years, various entrepreneurs had been reaping great profits from the blueberry crop on Flat Rock. Families were paid to camp on the land and pick berries for the business owners, who would sell them to buyers around the northeast.


Miner had the idea to offer the blueberry workers a better way of life. He provided them with shelter on his land, paid them twice as much as they received otherwise and arranged food and household items for them. Their gratitude was shown through their dedication to their employer. The favorable working conditions attracted around 100 families to Flat Rock to pick berries. At the height of production Miner was shipping 16,000 quarts of berries a day to major metropolitan areas.


William Miner passed away in 1930. His legacy lived on, however. In the 1960s, a share of his assets was used to establish a one-year agricultural research institute for aspiring farmers studying agronomy and dairy nutrition. The idea was to give back to the profession that had brought Miner so much. Today the school still sits and provides a valuable learning experience to students studying in the North Country.


William Miner brought economic vitality to a community that didn't have a lot to work with. His farming, forward thinking, and dedication to his community made him a model citizen and a successful philanthropist. The gifts he left the North Country are still living on.

 

 

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