Last New York tree nursery’s fate uncertain
Friday, April 17, 2009
By PAUL POST
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga Tree Nursery survived the Great Depression when its seedlings gave Civilian Conservation Corps workers jobs to help stimulate the economy.
Today, however, the 250-acre facility is on the state’s chopping block and faces possible closure as soon as July 1.
Founded 98 years ago, it’s the only state tree nursery left in New York, distributing 1.2 million seedlings annually that are used for a variety of important purposes — erosion prevention, habitat improvement, wildlife food, wetland mitigation.
“It’s ironic that this is one of the first programs they’re looking to end when we helped the economy back in the ’30s,” nursery Manager David Lee said. “This is one of the few DEC programs left that isn’t regulatory. We’re providing a service to New York state that benefits the environment. It isn’t ‘Big Brother’ watching you. Unfortunately these are the programs being hit.
“DEC’s going to be left as a law enforcement and regulatory agency.”
A state Department of Environmental Conservation press officer was not immediately available for comment. The tree nursery is part of the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, one of several along with the divisions of water, air quality and fish and wildlife.
“There’s nothing that has been etched in stone,” Lands and Forests Director Robert Davies said. “All the agencies have been asked by the governor’s office to put together a plan. It’s no secret that the nursery has been looked at for potential cost savings in the past.”
This year, however, with a $14 billion deficit looming, it’s facing the glare of budget-conscious state officials. The nursery’s fate could rest with the outcome of negotiations between Gov. David Paterson and state employees’ unions. The governor has asked union leaders to accept a wage hike freeze, which they’ve rejected to date. Without it, programs and services including the tree nursery would have to be cut.
“That’s what we’ve been asked to begin exploring,” Davies said.
Lee, who oversees a staff of 10 full-time and up to 60 seasonal workers, is urging residents to contact elected officials and DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, asking them to save the facility.
Workers are currently in the process of harvesting, grading and distributing seedlings, primarily to private landowners for conservation plantings. Once seedlings are distributed, the nursery’s 80 acres of production beds will be prepared for a new round of plantings. Such work could be for naught, at considerable expense, if the facility is forced to close this summer.
“We’ll still have 5 million to 6 million seedlings in the ground,” Lee said. “We have 50 species of shrubs, hardwoods and conifers.”
The nursery is the only place in New York that collects native seed, helping perpetuate native species such as red pine, white pine, red oak and sugar maple. If the nursery closes, people could still buy such trees, but not as seedlings in bulk numbers at affordable prices.
“It’s going to be a lot more expensive,” Lee said.
In addition, a red pine grown from New York seed may be heartier than one from Southern states, such as Georgia, whose trees are used to milder climates.
For the time being, nursery workers are carrying on with normal operations, hoping their livelihoods won’t be uprooted.
“Until I’m officially told to stop our production, we’ll continue business as usual,” Lee said.