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Tip to toe: The pitch pine exhibit soars to the Discovery Center skylights.

Celebrating Sustainability

The Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center is the consequence of 30 years of citizen activism—so why aren’t the citizen activists happy?

By Kathryn Geurin

Photos by Shannon Decelle

An eclectic crowd of politicians, scientists, environmentalists, teachers, artists, and school children huddled under a bouquet of bright umbrellas Tuesday morning to ward off the rain and celebrate the completion of the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center’s second phase of development and the unveiling of a memorial to Dr. Margaret M. Stewart—renowned conservation biologist, and one of the original citizen advocates for the Pine Bush. What was once the State Employees Federal Credit Union building, situated in the heart of the Pine Bush habitat, now stands as a gateway for preserve visitors, as an active education center, and as a silent testament to the powerful influence of persistent citizen advocates.

The Pine Bush is a trove of history and ecology unique to the Capital Region, and today only 10 percent of its original 58,000 acres remain undeveloped. In recent decades, government and citizen action to preserve the Pine Bush against development has led to the successful conservation and restoration of 3,010 of the remaining acres—the current Albany Pine Bush Preserve. After four years of development and a $4 million investment, a once-controversial building in the delicate landscape is home to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission offices and the new Pine Bush Discovery Center, an interpretive education center that showcases the history, ecology and value of the Capital Region’s most debated ecosystem.

The former bank building remains in many ways familiar, but from the first turn into the parking lot, it is clear that things on this hotly debated plot have changed. Solar panels line the driveway. Fall wildflowers spring up throughout the now-dirt lot. Beyond the handicapped parking spaces, the entire first row of parking is reserved for the environmentally savvy commuter. Signs post: carpool parking only, and past that, parking for hybrid cars. The Pine Bush, it seems, is reclaiming its land.

“We took out over 750 tons of asphalt from the former parking areas,” says Discovery Center Director Michael Venuti. “They are now planted with pitch pine, scrub oaks, and a variety of other plants and flowers that are restoring the habitat, and hopefully serving as an example of what you can do if you live in an area like this—how you can create gardens with native plants.” The solar panels, Venuti says, generate enough electricity to offset the building’s exterior lighting.

Fresh plantings spring from three large planters, which curve around the building, dotted with small interpretive signs. “We tried to re-create a forest in the outer planters, a thicket in the center, and the barrens on the inside,” says Venuti, indicating a small pitch pine and its respective illustrated marker. “All three major habitats in the Pine Bush, right here at our front door.”

A walkway leads past the microcosm of Pine Bush to an accessible, interpretive, quarter-mile preserve trail. The trail itself was developed using PolyPavement, an innovative and environmentally sound liquid soil solidifier, which binds the natural soil into a solid pavement two times stronger than asphalt. Between the Discovery Center and the trailhead stands a contemporary metal canopy, which will serve as the hub for the center’s outdoor programming, and a large outdoor restroom.

“Not that an outdoor restroom is a neat feature in itself,” chuckles Venuti, “but it’s a Clivus Moltrum.”

He says Clivus Moltrum as though this is the undisputed Rolls Royce of outdoor toilets, and then smiles.

“It’s a biological composting toilet system,” he elaborates. “You walk into it, and it looks like a regular restroom, but in the basement there’s a large tank. The liquid is pumped off and the solids are left to decompose over time. Over a period of years, the product will break down and eventually be removed as compost. It’s just another example of what can be done, and what people can do in their own home.”

Sustainable building concepts played a huge factor in the repurposing of the building, emphasizes Angelo San Diego, an architect with Albany-based firm Envision Architects.

“The idea of green, sustainable building is all over the media today, its mainstream now,” he says. “When the project began, that wasn’t the case.”

As construction concludes at the Discovery Center, the process to secure a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council has begun. “LEED certification is a rating system used to evaluate the sustainability of a project,” says San Diego. “If you select certain types of products, apply certain types of technology, you accrue points and—just like the Olympics—there are medals.”

Achieving LEED certification is not easy. Redeveloping a Brownfield site will get you one point. Recycling 75 percent of all construction waste (which the Discovery Center did) will get you one point. A minimum of 26 points are required for certification; 33 points will garner a Silver certification—a target San Diego hopes the Discovery Center will achieve. “It’s just so appropriate for an environmental education facility.”

Sustainable living is a clear message of the Discovery Center. One of the many exhibit areas in the 25,000-square-foot building is dedicated to the sustainable philosophy of the center’s construction. The facility’s electricity comes from Fenner Wind Power Plant in Madison County. The center utilizes high-energy-efficiency systems, and sustainably harvested lumber. The walls and carpets are made from recycled materials. The exhibit also offers suggestions and resources for visitors looking to reduce their own footprint, from stopping the flow of junk mail and recycling electronics to buying native plants and volunteering for local environmental agencies.

Herp heaven: Visitors check out the newly dedicated memorial to Dr. Margaret Stewart.

Other interactive displays entice visitors to explore the Pine Bush from its glacial beginnings to its current state. “We want to share with visitors why the Pine Bush is unique,” says Venuti, “the rare ecosystem, the management practices that take places in it, how people have interacted with it—past and present—and what the future holds for the pine barrens.”

Venuti and the Discovery Center staff wanted the educational experience to be as interactive as possible. “We based our exhibits on the concept that people learn by doing,” he says. “I sure know I do.”

And that concept is incorporated throughout the center. A firm foot-stomp on certain stenciled floor tiles activates the corresponding bird cry of a species swooping overhead. On Tuesday, kids jostled past each other to try on the 30-pound metal backpack and fire gear used for controlled burns in the Pine Bush.

Most recently, the Discovery Center has connected with local artists to create permanent art installations at the center, bringing an element of creativity to the interactive experience. Capital Region artists and longtime friends Chip Fasciana and Jesse Matulis were commissioned by the center to create a huge abstract mural of pine trees on the building’s roof peaks before the building reopened. The partnership led to a blossoming collaboration, and two more pieces were commissioned to foster the connections between local art, the local landscape, and creative education.

The newest pieces at the Pine Bush are nearly completed. One, an expansive relief mural by Fasciana and Matulis, will serve as a backdrop for outdoor programming. The other, a collaboration between Fasciana and father/son metalworking duo Kevin and Matthew Hart of Harts of Steel, is a large, interactive, stainless steel sculpture of a Karner Blue butterfly. It is the focal point of a labyrinth in the Discovery Center’s newest development—an outdoor toddler area, defined by the theme of metamorphosis.

And, appropriate to the theme, the concept for the sculpture evolved over time. What started as a decorative element developed into an interactive exhibit experience in its own right. The team connected with Bart Woodstrup from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute to incorporate a sound system and solar cell into the sculpture. The butterfly’s front legs can be shifted to control a series of nature sounds, which are piped through speakers in the compound eyes. A nearby steel flower cups a solar sensor at its center. Once the interactive components are completed, children will be able to pass their hands in front of the sensor to control a series of chirps that, according to Fasciana, “sound exactly like peepers—it’s amazing.”

Fasciana and the rest of the art team are thrilled that the center is working with local artists.

“You see so much corporate art today,” says Fasciana, “but we are creating something here that is truly handcrafted and unique.”

Matt Hart, the younger half of Harts of Steel, celebrated the challenge of creating a child-safe, interactive, metal butterfly.

“I feel really privileged to have this piece here, permanently—for the Karner, and the kids, a piece of myself. I love it here. It makes me feel like a kid again,” he says, then adds, chuckling, “I’m a bit of an outdoorsman myself. I tried to live off the land for a week once, ate frogs legs. But I kept sneaking back to the house for Little Debbies.”

The toddler area is scheduled to open in the spring of 2009, and further collaborations are already in the works. Venuti says the Discovery Center plans to hold a meet-the-artists event to connect the community to the homegrown pieces, and to credit the artists for “the amazing work they’re doing.”

One local group, however, does not believe they are being rightly credited for their influence on the Pine Bush and the Discover Center. When Lynne Jackson, a volunteer at the forefront of the 30-plus-year citizen-action organization Save the Pine Bush, was asked about the Discovery Center dedication, she responds dramatically, “Sigh. Weep. Of course Save the Pine Bush wasn’t invited.”

“Without the work of Save the Pine Bush there would be no preserve,” she insists. “Without Save the Pine Bush there would be no Discovery Center.”

When the SEFCU building was initially proposed on Pine Bush land in the late 1980s, Save the Pine Bush sued to prevent the development. While the case was in court, SEFCU went ahead and built the bank without the proper permits. Save the Pine Bush won the case. The credit union functioned under a nonconforming use variance, but the zoning for the land and the building remained residential.

When SEFCU officials decided to expand, they couldn’t do so on the existing property because they already were in violation of their zoning, and they couldn’t successfully sell a residentially zoned office building. So a land trade was arranged. The state gave SEFCU a parcel just north of the Harriman State Office Campus; in return, the SEFCU property was transferred to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.

“The commission is in large part a government entity,” says Jackson, “but the government didn’t just do this on its own. That’s not what happened. It’s because many ordinary citizens believed in the value of the Pine Bush, and fought for it. We’re still fighting.” Even the funding for the commission itself, she says, was secured as a mitigation agreement after Save the Pine Bush’s litigation against the first Rapp Road Landfill expansion.

“Citizen activism is what started the Pine Bush preserve,” says Jackson, “and the Discovery Center does not tell that story.”

Venuti disagrees.

“The elements of citizen action and current threats to the Pine Bush are specifically represented in our exhibits,” he says. Jackson herself is incorporated into an exhibit, a listening kiosk. “She does a nice job,” says Venuti, “talking about Save the Pine Bush and their work.”

“Any center like this evolves over time,” he adds. “Things change. Further representation of Save the Pine Bush is something we’re considering for the future.”

“The commission’s function of course,” says Jackson, “and they do it very well, is to manage the preserve. But in terms of expanding and fighting the bulldozers,” she adds with chagrin, “they don’t do so well on that. They give their scientific opinion, but they remain neutral. They compromise it all away.”

To date, 3,010 of those remaining acres have been secured by the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission and cooperating organizations, leaving nearly 3,000 of the delicate acres in private hands—and at perpetual risk for development. Save the Pine bush is currently involved in litigation to oppose the Woodfields Estate development in Guilderland, and the newest landfill expansion proposal, and the construction of a Residence Inn Hotel on Pine Bush habitat. In its 30 years, Save the Pine Bush has brought 16 published cases to court in defense of Pine Bush land, cases that have gone as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The discovery center is an absolutely beautiful facility; it’s gorgeous. But they don’t tell the whole story—this really important story that citizens can work together to make life better,” Jackson advocates. “People need to know that regular, average citizens can go out and do these things, and change their world. People need to know, children need to be taught, that if you see something wrong in your world, you can speak out, you can make change.”

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