Oak Openings used to spread across the eastern half of North America. They were formed by the glaciers. As the ice moved south, it stripped off most of the topsoil. In some places, it exposed the bare bedrock. These islands of rock were surrounded by deeper topsoil. As the ice retreated, new topsoil started to form on top of the bedrock. This left a structure where there was a large area with very little topsoil surrounded by areas with deeper topsoil. Oak trees migrated to the surrounding areas, but couldn’t root in the shallow soils of the openings themselves, which became grasslands. This created a symbiotic relationship between the Oak trees and fire.
Nothing larger than a bush can root in the shallow, variable soils of the opening. This makes the whole opening vulnerable to fire. Any fire that starts there will involve the whole savannah and surrounding areas. Oak trees are covered by a thick layer of bark that protects them from fire. The Pines and Poplars that compete for space in the forest rely on fast growth. When a fire sweeps through the forest, these thin skinned trees succumb much sooner than the tougher Oaks. The closer the Oaks grow to the fire prone prairie, the safer they are. This has created a monoculture of sorts, where the Oaks out compete most other species in the area. The abundance of food from the Oaks, and the proximity of savannah and forest habitats, attracts a wide variety of animals.
The openings also attracted humans. Native Americans used the openings as sites for their villages and farmlands. The open grassland made defense easier, and the fires renewed the soil each year. The openings weren’t suited for large scale farming or occupation, so they were mostly destroyed as the European settlers moved West. Quinn Oak Openings is the last opening in New York state, perhaps the only one left East of the Mississippi. The habitat has the highest rating for rarity in the state, and is among the rarest habitats in the country. It really is a little piece of the great plains tucked away in an upstate forest. Pictures can’t really show the stark contrast at the edge of the forest or the regular shapes that the grasslands create. There are circles, rectangles, and the largest opening covering several dozen acres. Some of the right angles are created by the prescribed burns that the Department of Environmental Conservation still does to maintain the habitat.
In our modern world, we don’t need the Oak Savannahs for food or defense. It’s an area worth preserving, though. It’s now the last example of a unique series of geologic and biologic circumstances. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the NYSDEC to purchase land surrounding the opening and preserve the area. Currently, the oak opening is in a state of suspended development. There aren’t any plans to support education or outreach for the park, there are minimal trails and facilities for visitors. It’s a really interesting place to hike through. After following a deer trail for a quarter mile, the close forest opens up into an enormous opening. It feels like it’s a man made structure, the circles are too perfect, the lines are too straight. It takes a moment to realize that this was all created by nature.