The Altona Flat Rock property is most famous locally for the abundance of wild blueberries that have grown there for generations. The blueberries were so plentiful that local families would camp on the property during the six-week blueberry season and sell berries to help provide for their families. The property is also well-known because of the prevalence of jack pine there. Jack pine is a species whose cones remain rock-hard until the heat of a forest fire opens them, facilitating regeneration. Both blueberries and jack pine benefit from the re-growth that occurs after a fire.
In July 2018, a fire burned 550 acres of the 15-square-mile Flat Rock property. It was the first “meaningful” fire in 60 years. For scientists and students at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Earth and Environmental Science, it was a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity.
“I’ve been awaiting an ecologically significant fire at Flat Rock since my introduction to the pine barren in 1974,” Dr. Ken Adams, a retired SUNY Plattsburgh professor of forest ecology said in a December 2018 interview with Adirondack Explorer. “Forests are more than trees, so it’s important to understand the effects of fire on all components of a forest ecosystem, including soils, vegetation, and wildlife habitat,” Adams said. Adams was a professor in the Applied Environmental Science Program (AESP) – a collaboration between Miner Institute and SUNY Plattsburgh – for decades.
Michala Hendrick was an AESP student in 2019. Under the direction of Dr. Danielle Garneau, a wildlife ecologist at SUNY Plattsburgh, Hendrick conducted a study focusing on the small mammal community composition, abundance, and foraging patterns in the burned and unburned portions of the Flat Rock State Forest. Data were collected in fall 2018 and fall 2019. “My data collection consisted of preparing and setting Sherman live traps in the evening and retrieving them in the early morning,” Hendrick explained. “This gave us a look at differences in abundance in the burned and control area.” Hendrick said that she used Giving Up Density (GUD) surveys to learn about foraging patterns across the two sites. Seeds mixed with sand were placed in an enclosed box with a tube for animal access. After 48 hours, the seeds were weighed to determine density loss to evaluate consumption vs. potentially high risk (predator/open) habitat.
“Almost nothing about this research was easy. It was labor intensive, time-consuming and the weather was frequently working against us,” Hendrick said. “Despite these challenges, I grew professionally and personally from these experiences… This work was rewarding and I’ve now captured and released over 100 small mammals which is an incredibly unique experience for an undergraduate student. In addition, the Altona Flat Rock is a valued, globally-rare habitat that amplifies the importance of the research students and staff are conducting there.”
Hendrick, along with several other students and SUNY Plattsburgh professors participated in collaborative interdisciplinary research which was showcased in a Flat Rock Fire Conference at Miner Institute in September 2019. The conference was a collaboration between Miner Institute, SUNY Plattsburgh, The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange. Students were able to present posters and discuss the research conducted at Flat Rock since the fire.
Hendrick plans to begin graduate school this month. She will be working toward a Masters of Science in Park, Recreation and Tourism Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Her graduate assistantship is funded through the National Park Service and the Old Dominion University Research Foundation. Her research will focus on visitor use management in various parks in the National Capitol Parks Region.