The Sourland forest in Central New Jersey is in trouble, and five young ecologists are digging in to help restore critical habitat.
Raritan Valley Community College students Will Bradford, Eve Cooke, Kelsy Geletej, Robert Lucas, and Lillian Wurtz planted over 1,000 trees in Sourland Region public parks and preserves in September, and they’re on track to plant over 2,000 more this fall.
“I took this internship to finally have the opportunity to help give back in a way I hadn’t been able to on my own,” said Geletej.
Added Wurtz, “I grew up in the Sourlands, and it means a lot to me to be able to make a difference in an area that I know so well.”
The 90-square-mile Sourland Mountain Region hosts 57 state-listed, threatened and endangered plant and animal species.
The New Jersey Forest Service estimates that over 1 million trees are dying in the Sourland forest due to an invasive insect, the emerald ash borer. “The Sourlands have a higher proportion of ash in their forest than the rest of the state,” said Bill Zipse, supervising forester, N.J. Forest Service.
“Some [bird] species are already at risk of extirpation from other threats. They too will suffer as the forest, already under duress and unable to regenerate itself because of excessive deer browse and invasive alien vegetation, will additionally lose mature ash trees comprising 20% of the canopy,” said Juanita Hummel, Washington Crossing Audubon Society president.
“Without intervention ... some of our beloved deep-forest bird residents and migratory visitors would disappear from our area altogether.”
Laurie Cleveland, Sourland Conservancy executive director, stated, “Deer are native to the Sourlands, but their overpopulation poses an existential threat to the forest. There are many more deer in our area than the forest can sustain. They’re literally eating insects, birds, and other animals out of house and home. We need to protect every seedling until it matures. Unfortunately, deer fencing is much more expensive than plants.”
The interns are planting a wide variety of trees and shrubs to restore the understory, stabilize streambanks, begin to fill holes in the tree canopy, and provide critical habitat for resident and migratory wildlife.
The Sourland Conservancy (SC) received a $10,000 grant from American Tower to purchase trees and shrubs for the interns to plant in 2021.
Installing fencing in historically forested areas will allow trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers to fill in without additional planting or risk of deer herbivory. SC and partner staff and volunteers will monitor the fenced areas to remove invasive vines and shrubs. Once the trees and shrubs mature, the tubes will be removed and reused in new planting sites.
The Gackstatter Foundation is supporting an SC partnership with Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC). Student volunteers, service-learning students, and paid interns from RVCC will advance and inform restoration efforts.
Students will measure planting success and collect baseline data on stream health and habitat for aquatic organisms in streams close to planting and fenced sites. In the future, these data can enable the partners to track stream water quality and habitat quality as ash trees are lost and revegetation efforts proceed.
Public planting events will continue at Rainbow Hill Preserve in East Amwell, through Oct. 30; and at Folusiak Preserve in Montgomery Township, Nov. 11 to 13. COVID guidelines will be strictly followed. For information or to register, visit sourland.org/events.
One Tree Planted, a nonprofit organization focused on global reforestation, has pledged over $17,000 to supply plants for the large volunteer plantings.