Tiny menace undermines Pine Bush's beauty
Albany -- Danger of ticks, Lyme disease mar pristine nature of preserve
By CAROL DeMARE, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, August 1, 2004
For nearly three decades, a day didn't go by without Don Rittner hiking into his beloved Pine Bush Preserve.
Considered a resident expert on the ecologically sensitive wilderness, Rittner had up-close familiarity with the pitch pines, scrub oaks, hog-nosed snakes, spade-foot toads and, of course, the Karner blue butterfly. ...
He guided groups of school kids and seniors, impressing upon them the habitat's uniqueness and his own 30-year fight to stave off development from chipping away the preserve, acre by acre. ...
He led moonlight horseback rides that meandered along rugged paths of the barrens, which once spanned 30,000 contiguous acres and now cover 6,000 acres -- of which about 3,000 are protected, bordering on Albany, Guilderland and Colonie.
But all that has changed.
Two summers ago, he hiked in to check on the population of the Karner blue -- the symbol of the Pine Bush preservation movement Rittner started in 1972 while a student at the University at Albany.
"I was in there half an hour and walked out, got into my car, and as I looked down to put the key in, I noticed that my pants were literally covered with ticks," he said.
"I had bare arms, a short-sleeved shirt, and there were ticks on my arms and ticks on my shirt. I literally jumped out of the car."
He frantically brushed them off, sprayed the car and himself and drove home, believing he had gotten them all. That night he found himself itching his inner thigh and felt a lump.
"Sure enough there was a big tick sucking my blood," he said. ...
Rittner's experience was unsettling. "For 25 years, I went out every single day and the only thing I ever found on me was an occasional grasshopper, and I was literally walking through every inch," he said. "And, then, I'm out a half-hour and I'm covered with deer ticks from head to toe."
Three of his friends have Lyme disease, named in 1977, when children in Lyme, Conn., got sick. Last year, there were 269 cases of Lyme disease in the four-county region. Additionally, almost 1,000 cases were reported in Columbia County. ...
Since the incident, Rittner, who was the city archaeologist under Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd and Pine Bush preserve manager under Mayor Thomas Whalen, has gone in occasionally but covers up and sprays himself. He won't take his three young sons with him. The author of 22 books, mainly on local history, feels the preserve is lost to the casual nature lover.
"You had this unique natural area ... so that in two to five minutes you could leave the urban congestion of a downtown and be standing in between sand dunes listening to sounds of warblers and watching butterflies," said Rittner, who holds degrees in anthropology, environmental science and environmental planning.
In the 1970s when there were 100,000 Karner blues, "one would land on my finger and stay there as I walked around on the tour," he said. "Now if you can see one, it's a good day."
"We have this preserve that we spent millions of dollars to protect and if you want to go out there you have to wear a space suit doused with insecticide. That's not why we saved the Pine Bush."
(Like the Rittner above, I used to go into the pine bush with my son but no more after we were ticked off two years ago. I've done some cross country races there since, but being 50+ years am not afraid of ticks as I am a middle of the pack runner and all the ticks are on the younger or better runners ahead of me.)