It was a calm, sunny day at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve on Friday morning. Conservationists were busy with a bird banding project as fall migrations get underway.
It's hard to imagine this 3,000 acre-plus oasis being the site of a forest fire. But it does happen, and it's set on purpose in an effort to preserve the ecology, plant life and wild life in the area.
Wildfires like the now-extinguished one at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County are rare in the northeast. But Neil Gifford warns they could become more frequent.
"It's not a matter of if these ecosystems are going to burn, but when," he said.
Gifford is the conservation director at the Albany Pine Bush, where fires are purposefully set in a controlled environment to burn away overgrown vegetation and deprive wildfires of fuel.
Without a mowing and controlled burn system, larger and uncontrolled fires can and will happen by feeding on plants that have grown too much and left neglected.
"The longer we go without fire in the northeast, the more likely it's going to be that we're going to get more fire," he said. "Climate change is going to exacerbate that."
A changing climate is leading to prolonged dry periods. Combined with an overgrown forest, the conditions are ripe for a wildfire. Gifford says effective forest management is needed.
"If we're able to do that, we're going to reduce wildfire risk and we're going to protect some pretty amazing biodiversity," Gifford said. "Plants and animals that are really only found in these types of habitats that for millennial lived and adapted to a landscape that burns pretty frequently."
An area near a trailhead at the preserve was part of what's known as a prescribed burn in June and already vegetation is growing back despite an unusually dry summer. Gifford says the Pine Bush's work over the last 30 years can be a model for how to tackle the problem in the northeast.
"We've been able to demonstrate here you can safely and effectively utilize prescribed fire both to reduce wildfire risk and to benefit the ecology that's here," he said.
Everyone, Gifford added, has a stake in preserving this land.
"These places are an asset," he said. "Whether you're interested in the plants and animals, whether you're interested in getting outside and going for a hike or using your mountain hike or riding your horse, having these places makes our lives richer."