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Thirty attend Woodstalk Tour at Miner Institute

October 19, 2011
By Richard Gast , Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

It was an absolutely glorious Columbus Day. The morning was breezy with a few clouds in the sky, moderate humidity and temperatures in the low 60s as the group of 30 enthusiastic Extension followers and New York Forest Owner Association landowner/members gathered at the auditorium of the Miner Center, the hub of Chazy's Miner Institute educational and research programs.

There the group was introduced to Herb Boyce, a private consulting forester who sustainably manages Miner Institute's thousands of acres of forest land, and Dr. Kenneth Adams, a naturalist and professor of ecology at SUNY Plattsburgh who teaches, among other things, Field Ecology for the Applied Environmental Science Program at Miner Institute.

I am extremely grateful to both Adams and Boyce for taking time out from very busy schedules to share the morning and their expertise with us. Boyce is a Society of American Foresters-certified forester who, with his wife Deborah, owns and operates Northwoods Forest Consultants LLC, which currently manages about 65,000 acres of private forest land in Franklin, Clinton, and Essex counties. Adams, who grew up on a dairy farm in Middlebury, Vt., and who credits his boyhood involvement with 4-H as "the pathway to broader horizons and exposure to the world beyond my family's farm," includes among his research interests the ecological effects of the 1998 ice storm on the Flat Rock ecosystem.

Article Photos

Ken Adams speaks to a group about the geomorphology of the Flat Rock ecosystem outside of the solar-powered cabin/classroom used for education and research activities at the Miner Institute in Chazy. The failed Miner dam can be seen behind the cabin.
(Photo provided)

What is the Flat Rock ecosystem? Officially, it is defined by New York state as a sandstone pavement barrens, which makes it an extremely rare and endangered ecological system. Fewer than 20 similar sites exist in the world. It is a comparatively desolate pine-barrens environment created more than 12,000 years ago, formed as glacial ice sheets melted and the resulting torrential flooding from the melt-water eroded away all of the sediment in its path, leaving vast areas of pavement and deposits of cobblestone.

Today, the 6,800-acre Altona Flat Rock sandstone pavement pine barrens is part of the upper Little Chazy River watershed. Located within the watershed boundaries, approximately 8 miles from Miner Center, is a failed hydroelectric project constructed between 1910 and 1913. The Miner Dam, an undertaking of nearly incomprehensible magnitude at the time, spans an area nearly 2300 feet long and is more than 32 feet tall at its maximum height. It was expected to hold one billion gallons of water and was intended to harness the energy of the Little Chazy River. After its completion in 1913, it took nearly another two years to fill the reservoir, which William Miner named Lake Alice after his wife, to capacity.

Unfortunately, seepage through Cobblestone Hill, on the northern boundary of the reservoir, eventually doomed the project, even after a thick layer of concrete and poured grout was used to try to alleviate the problem. The dam worked, but never to expectations, and the project was abandoned in 1922 after just seven years in operation.

Flat Rock is also home to a couple of unusual tree species, not at all common to New York: jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and pitch pine (Pinus rigida). When the pines at Flat Rock were decimated by the ice storm of 1998, with more than 80 percent of the canopy obliterated in some areas, a salvage operation was put into action to lessen the likelihood of fire in an ecosystem already naturally predisposed to fire. All but the undamaged trees and less damaged trees with cone-bearing branches were removed from the site.

It was the opportunity to view this rare and unusual geological, hydrological and ecological setting, to see first hand Miner's failed dam on the Little Chazy River and to gain some understanding of just what the impacts of the ice storm of 1998 were on the Flat Rock, while learning about the forest management practices which were employed in its wake, that brought the 30 Cornell Cooperative Extension and NYFOA-associated persons to the Miner Institute that morning.

As the assemblage left Miner Center for Flat Rock, not a cloud could be seen in the sky. We soon arrived at a solar powered cabin/classroom used for education and research activities, which sits alongside the Little Chazy River just below the dam. That site is now the Ecosystems Studies Field Laboratory, which was created as a joint initiative between Plattsburgh State University and Miner Institute for the enrichment of undergraduate instruction and to provide research opportunities for students studying geology and environmental science. There, Dr. Adams provided maps and an overview of the geomorphology of the area.

The group then set out to explore the area. All marveled at the bizarre scene: a massive abandoned dam in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere; an amazing curiosity rarely accessible to anyone outside of Miner Institute. We walked upon a small bridge across the Little Chazy River and followed the path below the dam to an opening, an intentional break in the concrete which allowed us to pass through it to what would have been Lake Alice on the other side. It was on this, the reservoir side of the dam, that we were able to see the damaged trees that were left standing following the 1998 ice storm, and the regeneration that has occurred as a result of the management that was implemented more than a dozen years ago. I was taken back by just how dense the new growth in the understory was. And it was here that Dr. Adams and Mr. Boyce, using hands-on teaching techniques, addressed the interdependence of natural processes and the effects of human activities on the ecosystem, strengthening our understanding and appreciation of the Flat Rock ecosystem for the extent of the damage that occurred there in 1998, of the scope and scale of the undertaking that followed, and of the success of the plan that was implemented at that time.

We ate lunch at Cobblestone Hill, then traveled back to the Miner Center where we regrouped and were joined by Miner Institute's dairy outreach coordinator, Wanda Emerich, and public relations coordinator, Rachel Dutil, who also took time from very busy schedules to escort us to through the next stop on our tour; a visit to the farm. Our first stop was the Heart's Delight Farm Heritage Exhibit, where we looked at several of William H. Miner's innovative, patented inventions, a diorama depicting the buildings, animals and topography of Heart's Delight Farm circa 1910, and a scale replica of Miner's 46-room Chazy home, Heart's Delight Cottage. We also viewed a short movie that looked at a century of challenges and changes that have taken place in North Country agriculture and the leading role that Miner Institute continues to hold in the field, in the Miner Institute "100 Years and Growing" theater.

From there we walked to the coach house, where we were able to check out an impressive collection of mint condition, early-20th-century, horse-drawn vehicles from Heart's Delight Farm, including several buggies, coaches, carriages and sleighs, a sprinkler wagon and one of the 13 International school buses that Miner donated to the Chazy Central Rural School and maintained at the farm. Then we walked across the way to the 1906 dairy barn, which now houses the Institute's Morgan horses. The final stop on our tour was the state-of-the-art dairy barns and milking parlor, which utilize the latest technologies available to keep Miner Institute's dairy cows as comfortable and productive as possible.

We remain extremely thankful to those that made this outstanding event so successful. No one went home disappointed.



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