Saratoga Spa State Park is a nationally famous natural resource resort built around mineral springs that were reknowned for their therapeutic and healing properties. The Park lies south of the Town of Saratoga Springs, mostly between US 9 and NY 50, and is covered in magnificent stands of white pine, red pine and hemlock. The park includes not only the bath houses with their mineral springs, but the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Gideon Punam Hotel Conference Center and two golf courses.
Principal portions of the park are west of US 9 that runs north through the Town of Saratoga. However, the park acquired 300 additional acres east of US 9, and south of Crescent Avenue. Much of this land was cleared early in the 1800's as farmland for crop fields and pastures. Some of this farmland was woodlot for firewood and timber, and other areas were too swampy and left undisturbed. About 90 acres is saturated by numerous springs that create soggy, swampy wetlands. These areas have grown into old growth. Local Audubon members report several owls inhabiting these woods are heard hooting at night.
In 1999, the State Park administration announced a plan to clear this Crescent Road property to install an 18-hole golf course.
Members of the environmental groups devoted many hours to walk and map the property, and were impressed by the size of many trees, especially hemlocks, white oaks, birches, beeches, and swamp white oaks. Sierra Club and Audubon Society asked the Eastern New York Old Growth Survey Team to survey the Crescent Road property for old growth. The weekend of March 9 & 10, two teams conducted site inspections, and discovered several acres of exemplary old growth. March 9 was a hike with Audubon Society members, and March 10 with Sierra Club's Outings Group.
Saturday afternoon, March 9, over 40 members of New York Audubon Society attending their spring statewide meeting at the Gideon Putnam Hotel accompanied Bruce Kershner and David Yarrow on a three hour walk through the Crescent Avenue property. As we entered the woods, a hawk circled overhead. Dave Gibson and Bob Budlinger recounted the site's political history, and the strategy that defeated the development plan. The group halted frequently to hear Bruce and David explain numerous signs of old growth evident in several areas of the forest.
Only 100 yards south of the Crescent Avenue-Jefferson Road intersection, numerous large diameter hemlock and white oak were found. Most oaks were at least two feet in diameter, had significant balding of their bark, and grow tall and straight; they are at least 150 years old. Several hemlocks approach three feet in diameter, suggesting they were at least 200 years old. Along this grove's edge, a few white pine have reached old growth size. The canopy begins at 50 feet, and reaches to just over 100 feet. A lack of species diversity suggests the valuable hardwoods had been removed at least a century earlier. A few moss-covered stumps of smaller diameter were evident, indicating some logging had occurred 25 to 50 years ago. Quite a few hemlocks have fallen over, heaving up their shallow roots; one such blowdown is nearly eight feet in circumference. The total area of this grove is perhaps five acres, although we didn't attempt to explore its boundaries.
Another hundred yards to the south, we encountered a larger hemlock-oak grove, which also includes a few old growth black birch, yellow birch, red maple, black oak, and beech. The beech reach up to nearly 100 feet, and are deeper in the grove, on its west edge with a former field, and are remarkably healthy, with no sign of the fungus afflicting other Northeast beeches. This second grove covers up to ten acres, is crisscrossed by many low, wide wetlands, and shows fewer signs of human disturbance. Mosses of many varieties, encouraged by ample abundance from the swampy wetlands, grow abundantly thick in many areas, totally encasing many fallen tree trunks. Thick swaths of dried fronds indicate extensive fern beds throughout the stand. Numerous wildlife signs revealed the grove is a lively animal habitat, including deer, owl, porcupine, raccoon, and squirrel.
A 15 minute hike further south through former open fields now overgrown with small saplings, raspberries, sumac, and other brush brought us to high ground perched on a swamp. A gigantic swamp white oak over four feet in diameter lay fallen in a somewhat open area. This monstrous tree could have been a state champion, but had been dead for years, and had fallen early in the winter. Bruce Kershner counted the rings on the stump, and estimated the giant's age at over 300 years. All around, its many offspring were growing, some reaching nearly two feet in diamter, and likely over 100 years in age. Such swamp oak communties are rather rare in New York; this one may extend up to five acres.
March 10, 2002
The next day at 1pm, at the invitation of Outings coordinator William Koebbeman, Fred Brglia and David Yarrow met nearly Sierra Club 30 members for a second survey of the Crescent Avenue property. Survey team member Tom Diggins brought four students from Hamilton College, where Tom is a Biology instructor. In 24 hours the temperature had dropped 30 degrees, and at intervals, winds gusted to over 30 miles per hour whipping snow through the air, making us grateful for the deep shelter of this ancient stand of large trees. The park adminstration had approved taking tree ring cores from downed trees, but no standing live specimens.
We returned to the hemlock-white oak grove near the Jefferson Road intersection, where Fred bored a tree ring core from a nearly three foot diameter hemlock blowdown. He counted 179 rings, which extrapolated the tree's age to over 200 years, indicating a medium rate of growth in the grove. Numerous other hemlocks are of equal or greater girth; one measured 8 feet 2.5 inches in circumference. Height of the hemlocks is 100 to nearly 120 feet. The oaks are from five to eight feet in girth, and 100 to 115 feet tall. One white pine on the edge of the grove was measured at nine foot ten inches girth, and 117 feet tall.
We continued further south to the second grove, although the transition to this less disturbed area is not obvious. More hemlocks were toppled by high winds, and the pit and mound topography typical of old growth is much more evident in this grove. Small saplings of other species were present, including black cherry, white birch, red oak, and an unknown elm. Fred measured a few of the large beech at eight foot or more circumference, and heights of 92 to over 100 feet.
We hiked further south through thick underbrush and across a formerly open field to the giant swamp white oak. Its girth was measured as 12 feet nine inches at eight feet above the broken stump, and Fred estimated its height at over 90 feet. Fred counted the stump rings to estimate an age just over 350 years and we discussed why the early settlers had left this lone specimen and logged all the rest. Fred pointed out it has a split trunk, which would lower its timber value.
Leaving the perched swamp white oak family, we hiked west across the overgrown field and into a sumac grove. Beyong the sumac we encountered an old stone wall, now nearly leveled by two centuries of weathering. The forest beyond the fence was young, but with a greater diversity and mixture of species than any other area we inspected on the property. Few of the trees in this area were older than 100 years. Along the edge of the former open field were several ancient border oaks which might be 130 to 150 years old.
Heading north, we returned to the second hemlock-oak grove. Our approach from a more westerly direction suggested that this grove may be larger than first estimated, and will require a more thorough survey to determine its actual boundaries and extent. We encountered one tree with a crack up its trunk that was inhbited by a wild animal. The large pile of droppings at the base of the trunk was over 18 inches high, suggesting this tree had been inhabited for many years, perhaps decades. We speculated what creature might be living there, but lacked enough tracking knowledge to resolve this question.
The Earth Restoration and Reforestation Alliance — www.championtrees.org — updated 4/14/2003