Palmaghatt survey report    David Yarrow
   Jan 04, 2003 04:35 PST 
Palmaghatt Ravine Survey
Minnewaska State Park
Second Survey Visit
November 9, 2002
Coordinator: David Yarrow 

Team 1
Leader: Fred Breglia
Assistant: Howard Stoner
Others: Jorge Gomes (park ranger), Lou Sebesta, Dorothy Evans (NYS Natural Heritage Pgm), Rob Henry, David Hunt, Will Nixon, Tricia & Bill Saville, Ned Barnard, Christina Cobb, Bob Miller
Datasheets: Howard Stoner, David Hunt

Team 2
Leader: Dean Fitzgerald
Assistant: Lisa Bozzuto
Others: Dan Karpen, Bruce Herforth, Bruce Kershner, Jerry Horowitz, Jud Newborn, Anita & Michael Devine, Mark Gill, Eleanor Vine, Gerald Davison, Dave & Barbara Deihl
Datasheets: Bruce Kershner

PHOTO REPORT:  47 photos organized into three webpages; slow download times.

Saturday, November 9, NYOGFA's Eastern New York Survey Team conducted a second expedition into Palmaghatt Kill ravine. Park Manager Tom Cobb authorized NYOGFA to go off trail into the ravine for further scientific study. Otherwise, the ravine remains a restricted area, with no trails, signs or publicity to protect this fragile, encapsulated ecosystem from disturbance.

Our first encounter with the ravine was April 13, 2002, and we were astonished at the ancient hemlock forest we found. After, aerial photos of the ravine gave us an accurate, complete view of the size, boundaries and diversity of ravine ecology. We realized our 4/13 survey only saw the uppermost of several big tree communities—and the first of five bogs. The aerial photo gave us a realistic plan to scout the ravine, including a new way to enter the ravine, and clear objectives for our second scramble over the rocks and cliffs of this secluded sylvan sanctuary.

After a few days of heavy rain and chill weather, this November Saturday was warm—in the 50s—and partly sunny—better for photos than April's damp, foggy day. Heavy rains two days earlier had mostly dried out and drained away.

Two Teams

Communication failure with Western NY Survey leader Bruce Kershner resulted in 25 people showing up for the survey—twice the expected and desired size crew. Also present were ancient forest activists from Ithaca-area, New York City and southern New Jersey. The extra participants were organized into a second survey team, led by Dean Fitzgerald, assisted by Lisa Bozzuto. After a half hour of introductions and instructions by the Lake Minnewaska parking lot, the two teams started the 1.5 mile hike on carriage trails to the ravine. Each team had a different assignment, and would traverse different terrain.

For the first time, NYOGFA's survey team was equipped with a GPS unit. Team 1 had an extra member: Dorothy Evans, a professional botanical survey technician from the NYS Natural Heritage Program. Dorothy's GPS unit was no simple point locator, but a sophisticated scientific data device. A fanny bag carried a special antenna able to lock on to five satellite signals, even in dense forest cover. The unit stores 1000 items of data for direct download into a computer. The rugged, untracked ravine is an ideal environment for such an instrument. In 2003, NYOGFA will equip survey teams with simpler GPS units.

Survey Plan

Team 1 entered the ravine at its top—same as our 4/13 survey. Their mission was to explore the ravine's farther (southeast) side, across the stream, along the high cliffs of the upper ravine. The aerial photo suggested those southeast slopes are rocky talus, with small trees and dense shrubs, with few large trees. But small size often hides great age, and we needed a complete assessment of the ecological communities in the ravine. Team 1 would survey the least promising areas, with a goal to reach the power line at the ravine's lower end by lunch.

Team 2 hiked further down the carriage trail to enter the ravine near the first bog, where the team emerged on 4/13. From Team 2's vantage point high on the ravine's edge, Team 1 was visible far below in the bottom, threading around trees and over boulders and logs. Team 2's mission was to explore the ravine's northwest side, which, on the aerial photo, seemed to contain the biggest trees. Team 2 had an easier route, and a more promising forest to study. Its goal was to meet Team 1 at the power line at the lower end of the ravine.

After lunch, both teams would double back up the northwest side to collect data in the obvious area of old growth and giant trees northwest of the second bog. The aerial photo hinted the trees in this lower ravine were even larger than the hemlock grove in the upper ravine explored on 4/13.

Team 2

Hopping and sliding down steep slopes of boulders and loose debris, Team 2 reached the ravine bottom at the lower end of the grove of large hemlocks explored on 4/13. The upper bog—the final destination reached by the 4/13 survey—was a hundred yards further down the ravine, and on the aerial photo the largest trees were several hundred feet below that. Team 2 confirmed the forest in this upper ravine is a few centuries old, dominated by dense, craggy Hemlock, with some Yellow Birch and fewer Red Maple.

Signs of hemlock wooly adelgid invasion were again abundant. Many hemlock twigs on the ground had stems coated with fuzzy, white adelgid bodies slowly sucking the life out of the tree. Many small saplings showed heavy adelgid infestation, and it seems this ancient hemlock forest's future will be short—perhaps another five years.

Team 2 divided in three, and scattered in the ravine. One group backtracked up the ravine to search for an older hemlock with a broken top.

Another group scouted the upper bog's edge, and found very old, but not large, hemlocks. One hemlock Daniel Karpen saw growing in the bog on a boulder is 500—perhaps 600—years old.

A third group explored the steep talus slopes above the bog, but found only smaller, stunted trees.

Team 2 Assistant Lisa Bozzuto filed <a href="Palmaghatt21109lb.htm"> a well-stated report</a> about this segment of the survey. Unfortunately, she later was stranded above the lower cliffs, and never made the descent to see the lower ravine and the Gallery of Giants.

Convergence at The Crevice

Two Team 2 groups regrouped a hundred feet below the bog, with little to report beyond smaller trees clearly centuries old. Here, the stream makes a dramatic drop over a rocky face, broken by a crevice strewn with tangled tumbles of massive boulders. This steep crack in the cliffs is the only entry to the lower ravine, which is lined by a second tier of towering cliffs—and would be our only way out later.   

Team 2 started to thread a trail down this narrow notch, hopping from boulder to boulder. Team 1 appeared, having doubled back from its hike along the southeast cliffs. A long line of hikers snaked over and around giant rocks and tree falls, shimmying along narrow ledges, descending the crevice, sinking below the second tier of cliffs that isolate the lower ravine.

Team 1 had explored the far side terrain, passing through several distinct ecological communities. The team hiked quickly through the upper hemlock grove visited on 4/13. After leaving that area, the team stopped to measure a few trees, and extract tree ring cores to establish ages for average specimen trees.

The far side is largely rugged talus fields of large boulders, with thin (or no) soil and acid water—a harsh environment unable to grow large trees. Many areas are tangled thickets of mountain-laurel, rhododendron, holly, witch hazel, and mountain-ash. Other areas are dominated by small to moderate size hemlocks. Extensive thick mats of moss and beds of ferns cover exposed surfaces, and moss has crept up many tree trunks.

A few large White Pine grow below the cliffs. Otherwise, hemlocks dominate these communities, with some Yellow Birch and Red Maple. Black Tupelo are in wet areas. An American Chestnut was found; its deep bark fissures suggested advanced age for the small tree. But most trees and shrubs are stunted by the thin, poor, rocky soil and acid waters.

A small cave was found—a potential bear dean—and bear scat was found. Likely the ravine provides a secluded habitat for black bear. We saw nothing of the turkey vultures that were soaring over the ravine in April.

The Lower Ravine

Eventually, Team 1 progress was blocked by a high cliff overlooking the lower ravine. Below them, the team saw a deeper ravine with a mixed hardwood community of giant trees. The second bog was visible down the ravine from this high vantage point. But with no way down the high, vertical cliff, the team turned back up the ravine, seeking a place to descend the cliff to reach the lower ravine. Team 1 met Team 2 just as it was descending The Crevice.

After a hundred yards, The Crevice widened and leveled somewhat, although still very confined. There, at the upper end of a grove of giant trees, we paused for lunch and reports. After lunch, the same teams reformed. Team 1 traveled the bottom of the ravine along the stream. Team 2 went upslope, along the towering cliffs.

The slope is gentler, so more duff and debris accumulates to form soft soil and fill cracks between boulders. But even here, care was required, lest a hiker suddenly plunge knee or hip deep in a hidden gap between rocks. Several team members stepped into such a surprise, but none seriously hurt. The worst got bangs, bruises and scrapes. At several spots, we heard water cascading under the rocky debris.

Hardwood Diversity

Trees grow better in the thicker, moister soil, sheltered by two tiers of cliffs. The ragged forest canopy soars to well over 100 feet. Yet, these tall trees are dwarfed by the cliffs confining us in the ravine. In this rugged, uneven terrain, measuring trees—especially height—is challenging, both physically and mathematically.

Hemlocks are less dominant, with many hardwood species: Sugar Maple, Tuliptree, Northern Red Oak, American Beech, Black Cherry, Yellow Birch, Black Birch, White Birch, and White Ash. Many trees are huge for their species, and display ancient bark that indicates ages of several centuries. An American Chestnut was found with nearly three foot diameter which, though long dead, was still standing—a rare find in any eastern forest.   

This greater diversity will assure a smoother, less catastrophic transition as hemlocks die of adelgid infestation.

Gallery of Giants

This Gallery of Giants is filled with so many dramatic, attractive specimens. Very large specimens of each species were found. They grow straight up for several dozen feet without branching, indicating ancient giants grew in a mature forest in which they had to climb and reach for light above an already high canopy.   

However, trees are not exceptional in height. Few were much more than 100 feet tall. The tallest trees measured was a Hemlock at 121.5 feet, and a Black Cherry at 104 feet. But few trees exceed 100 feet in height. A future survey will have to make more tree height measurements in this Gallery of Giants to assess more carefully the canopy of this forest.

Seems despite the shelter provided by the two tiers of cliffs in the deep ravine, other factors limit the trees' vertical growth potential. The principal growth restriction seems to be the lack of soil, which may make moisture uneven and unreliable. Possibly, too, the rocky environment subjects the trees to extremes of summer heat and winter cold.

Most trees display the most ancient bark we've seen anywhere in New York, making them difficult to identify by bark alone. Many exhibit extremes of bizarre growth, including stilted roots as thick as ordinary trunks, and large roots twisting and snaking over and around boulders. These signs indicate not only are the trees old growth, but the forest is far more ancient.

These signs of advanced age heightened our appreciation for this extra-ordinay place. The air filled with excited talk and exclamations as teams wandered from giant to giant, measuring height and girth, taking photos, estimating age. Again, the ravine exceeded our expectations.

The short afternoon went quickly gathering data on these extra-ordinary trees. The late date in the year meant darkness descended early, and we didn't want to stumble through this rugged, rocky ravine in the dark. So we had to forego reaching the power line in the lowest end of the ravine and inspecting other notable tree communities. Team 2 began to scramble back up the crevice into the lower ravine, while Team 1 made a rapid ramble down to the second bog to scout the terrain and note further tree conditions. Team 2 found where Palmaghatt Kill leaves the second bog in a deep, rocky channel, and then hurried up and out of the Gallery of Giants and the Crevice in the gathering twilight.

Postscript: Ice Storm

One week after our survey, a major weather disturbance struck the Shawangunk forest. Beginning early morning on Nov. 16, 2.9 inches in rain and ice, then 1.7 inches of snow fell on the Shawangunk Ridge in a 47 hour period. At Mohonk Preserve, staff measured ice as thick as 7/8 of an inch surrounding tree limbs. Many trees suffered significant damage from this ice burden—the worst at Mohonk since a 1942 ice storm.   

Oaks, with still leaves still clinging, were the most damaged. Many hemlock were also lost limbs, snapped in mid-trunk, or were uprooted completely. At Minnewaska, many miles of carriage roads and hiking trails were blocked by fallen tree debris. One resident of the Gunks who toured the Ridge commented, "It looked like someone went along with a weed whacker and chopped off the tops of them."

The head ranger at the Mohonk Preserve said, "It's throughout the whole forest. The whole forest has been substantially changed by this."

We have no information how much damage occurred to the ancient forest and tall trees in the Palmaghatt Kill ravine. The next survey will have to assess the impact of this ice storm on the ravine's ecosystems.

David Yarrow
Turtle EyeLand Sanctuary
44 Gilligan Road, East Greenbush, NY 12061
518-477-6100; fax 477-1346
Palmaghatt Ravine   Howard Stoner
  Nov 11, 2003 07:56 PST 

Here is the report on our most recent survey in the Palmaghatt Revine a
section of Minnewaska State Park near New Paltz NY.

E. Hemlock 12.2' cbh 109'
Tulip 10.2' cbh 108'
B. Cherry 8.4' cbh 100'
A. Beech 7.2' cbh 93'
NR Oak 8.0' cbh 91.8'
G. Ash 9.7' cbh 85.8'
R. Maple 5.4' cbh 84.8'
Y. Birch 4.2' 80.0'
B. Birch 3.6' 77.3'
Chestnut Oak 3.6' cbh 65.8'
Rucker Index of 89.6