Ice storm left legacy of rebirth for Altona Flat Rock area

Beautiful. Devastating. Those two words describe Kenneth Adams first impressions of the devastating effects of the ice storm of 1998 on the Altona Flat Rock area. First I was struck by how beautiful the ice itself was, he recalled. On a bright, sunny day, the sparkling of ice-coated branches was beautiful. But the splendor of the ice couldnt hide the ruin beneath. An entire ecosystem looked like a war zone, with more than 70 percent of the trees uprooted, snapped off or otherwise severely damaged. The destruction was so severe Dr. Adams had doubts the area could be saved. The Altona Flat Rock region had the unhappy distinction of being nearly the epicenter of what was the largest ecological disturbance of the 20th century. The ice storm of 1998 impacted 25 million acres throughout New York, New England and Eastern Canada, with 4.6 million of those acres affected in New York. In New York, Clinton County was one of the most severely affected, with Flat Rock taking the brunt of the storms wrath. While ice storms are common in Northern New York, most usually produce less than 1/2 inch of ice. The ice storm of 1998 produced ice thicknesses of between 1-4 inches over a very widespread area. There were thousands of pounds of ice in the trees; they couldnt withstand the weight, said Dr. Adams. I was completely shocked at what I found. As a professor in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at the State university of New York at Plattsburgh, Dr. Adams has extensively studied Altonas Jack Pine barrens, commonly known as Flat Rock. Its a unique forest type, he explained. There are fewer than five in New York and fewer than twenty worldwide. The barrens are composed mostly of Jack Pines, a fire-dependent species which can grow in very dry, shallow soil in many places only one-inch thick directly on top of the bedrock. The trees, themselves, reproduce via a resinous cone which remains sealed until fire melts the resin, releasing the seeds. The problem, then, was all the tree branches containing the cones were on the forest floor where they would remain unopened. With the seeds virtually entombed and unavailable for regeneration, the future of the forest looked grim. A second, but no less important concern, was the huge fire hazard due to the amount of fuel that now littered the ground in this already fire-prone environment. Miner Institute [owner of the area] was very concerned, Dr. Adams explained. A fire with that much fuel would be dangerous to neighbors. Plus, it would be too intense. It would incinerate the cones. Drought could have caused catastrophic wild fires. The question, then, was how to manage this destructive event to both prevent a disastrous wild fire and, hopefully, to help repair the damaged ecosystem. After meeting with Herb Boyce of Northwoods Forest Consultants in Jay, it was agreed the fuel load needed to be reduced. In approximately 500 acres of the barrens, heavy machinery was brought in to chip and remove the fallen and damaged tree trunks. But in a novel experiment, they decided to leave the cone-bearing branches in place, allowing them into be broken up and mashed into the ground by the machinery. The hope was they could mechanically open up the cones, releasing the seeds, thus letting the forest regenerate from the seedlings. It had never been tried before, so we werent sure if it would work or not. recalled Dr. Adams. But the results appear very successful; were very pleased. Ten years later, signs of renewal are rampant in this once devastated and very fragile ecosystem. Today, there are several thousand new seedlings per acre in the treated area. However, the untreated areas have showed further deterioration. Half of the trees that remained standing after the ice storm have since died and there is very sparse regeneration. The future is uncertain for the untreated area, conceded Dr. Adams, who explained the decision to treat only 500 acres was based mostly on economics. It just wasnt feasible to treat the entire 2,000 acres of pine barrens owned by Miner Institute, he said. Despite the economic and ecologic damage caused by the storm, Dr. Adams acknowledges Mother Nature provided a very valuable education. Students from SUNY Plattsburgh have performed regular monitoring of the regeneration, even publishing their findings in professional journals. The university has also received several grants to study the effects of the ice storm and assess the recovery.

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