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Story and Photos By DEBORAH A. MILES
One of the things people comment on when they visit upstate New York is the number of trees lining the highways, glorifying neighborhoods and blanketing the mountains. From the southern tip of the Catskills to the northern point of the Adirondacks, the trees appear endless and breathtaking.

But most people don’t realize New York has just one state tree nursery, nestled in Saratoga County, where 1.2 million seedlings are grown and sold annually. It opened in 1911 and is state-funded.

The nursery is operated by PEF member David Lee, a forester 2, who oversees a staff of 10 full-time employees and 45 seasonal employees.
“We don’t compete with the private sector,” Lee said. “If you are looking for a nice tree for your backyard, we don’t have any available. Our mission at the state nursery is to fill the void that exists on smaller stock.”

The smaller stock consists of 1- 3- year-old seedlings produced on 200 acres.

Most of the seeds used are gathered from seed orchards and seed production areas maintained by the staff.

The nursery has an operating seed extractor on the premises. It also has the know-how to clone certain trees to produce a genetically superior tree.

Lee said the seedlings are sold to state residents at an affordable cost, and also are used in state projects.

“If a person purchased an old farm field with no vegetation, or no plants around a pond or river, that’s where we come in,” Lee said. “We sell our seedlings at cost, and they are able to do soil-erosion control, build a wildlife habitat, plant a sound barrier or hedgerow for privacy or as a windbreak.

“It’s important to provide native seedlings to New York residents to maintain the unique habitat and genotype of the species found in the state. If a person doesn’t know the seed source, they could end up planting materials that are not suitable for New York’s climatic conditions.

Our program ensures we are preserving the state habitat.”

Riverbanks to chestnuts
You can see the rewards of the Saratoga tree nursery around the state.

It donates seedlings to Trees for Tribes, a Hudson River Estuary Watershed program that kicked-off in 2007 to revegetate and restore streamside buffers that protect water quality.

Hundreds of volunteers from neighborhoods, community and environmental groups and private industry planted native trees and shrubs along more than 31,500 feet of streams and rivers in the Hudson Valley.

The nursery provided free seedlings. Federal grant money paid for mature tress purchased from local nurseries.

The state nursery also works with the American Chestnut Foundation, producing seedlings to help prolong the existence of the chestnut.

It assists the Albany Pine Bush Commission and the Wilton Wildlife Preserve.

“We are doing two things there,” Lee said. “We’re assisting the commission and preserve by cleaning seed from the species they collect. We also are growing native species from around their areas.”

Black Ash to classrooms
The tree nursery has a role in preserving the culture of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Lee said the tribe members use the bark from the Black Ash tree to make baskets and bowls. They collect the seeds from the trees, the nursery grows them into seedlings, and returns them to the tribe to plant.

“They pay us a little for seedlings, but it is a cooperative effort and we are helping them meet their needs,” Lee said.

Educational institutions from pre-schools to colleges also play a part at the tree nursery. Lee said it promotes a school seedling program, providing 50 free seedlings to each school that applies.

“Teachers can work the seedlings any way they want into their curriculum,” Lee said. “Last year, approximately 600 schools applied.”

The future
“There’s a lot of talk of having the staff at the tree nursery help create a green infrastructure by looking at native alternatives,” Lee said. ”We have the ability and expertise to identify viable alternatives to the entire nursery industry in New York. We can do the research and propagate native plants to produce liner stock, which can be purchased by private industry that can grow bigger specimens for people’s homes.

“You can lose a lot of your trees when there is drought or harsh winters. Our nursery takes away the risk from the private sector. That boosts the economy of the state.
CHECKING THE SEEDLINGS — PEF members David Lee and Michael Echtner examine seedlings at the Saratoga Tree Nursery, where 1.2 million seedlings are gown and sold annually.