Sourland Conservancy interns (from left) Will Bradford, Lilly Wurtz, Eve Cooke, and Kelsy Geletej have planted over 1,000 trees in Sourland Region public parks and preserves in September alone. (Not pictured, Robert Lucas)

The Sourland forest in Central New Jersey is in trouble, and five young ecologists are digging in to help restore critical habitat. Will Bradford, Eve Cooke, Kelsy Geletej, Robert Lucas, and Lillian Wurtz have planted more than 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. “It’s an amazing feeling giving back to the environment like this,” Wurtz agreed, “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. Juanita Hummel, Washington Crossing Audubon Society President, stated: “Many species of birds rely on the large contiguous Sourland forest to raise their families, others to feed and rest during migration or to spend the winter.”

“The Watershed Institute is excited to be partnering with the Sourland Conservancy on this project and grateful for the hard work that these interns have put in at the Watershed Reserve and other natural areas in our region,” said Jim Waltman, The Watershed Institute’s Executive Director. “We have lost thousands of ash trees and this tree planting project is essential to restore our forests.”

The New Jersey Forest Service estimates that more than one 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, so they’re looking at a bigger impact from emerald ash borer than other forests around the State,” said Bill Zipse, Supervising Forester, NJ 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 Hummel. “Without intervention, the ensuing fragmentation of the forest would mean that 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 Sourland Conservancy (SC) received a $10,000 grant from American Tower to purchase trees and shrubs for the interns to plant in 2021. The trees range in size from tubelings to two-gallon pots and will be planted singly in tree tubes and wire cages, as well as larger fenced areas up to 1/2 acre in size. Single tubes will be used primarily in areas prone to flooding. 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, such as honeysuckle and multiflora rose, which impede the growth of the native plants. 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. Carolyn Klaube, the Sourland Conservancy’s Stewardship Director, worked with Dr. Jay Kelly, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and Dr. Emilie Stander, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, to develop a plan for interns and service-learning students to 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.

“We will use the data to guide planting and fencing decisions in our future restoration efforts – and we will share the data with residents, municipalities, and other organizations throughout the state and beyond,” said Klaube.

“We look forward to helping the Sourland Conservancy monitor the success of this essential initiative, and offer special kudos and thanks to the wonderful interns and volunteers out there in the field planting trees and saving the Sourland forest for future generations of birds and people,” Hummel said.

Lisa Wolff, Executive Director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS), said: “The new trees improve long-term forest biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, and slow the impact of climate change. We are so pleased that we are already making plans to partner with the Sourland Conservancy in 2022!”

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. Some of the tree and shrub species that interns and volunteers will be planting this fall are: red and white oak, tulip poplar, sugar maple, silver maple, red maple, shagbark hickory, smooth alder, dogwoods, pawpaw, inkberry, winterberry holly, elderberry, red chokeberry, pussy willow, black willow, American elder, highbush blueberry, arrowwood viburnum, buttonbush, steeplebush, Virginia sweetspire, swamp rose, American hornbeam, nannyberry, spicebush, and blackhaw viburnum.

“Volunteers have always played a vital role in our work,” said Roger Thorpe, Sourland Conservancy Trustee and Stewardship Committee Chair. “The interns plant in streambanks, sensitive species’ habitat, and other sites that aren’t accessible to groups. We rely on large numbers of volunteers to plant hundreds, sometimes thousands, of trees to restore open areas.” One Tree Planted, a non-profit organization focused on global reforestation, has pledged over $17,000 to supply plants for the large volunteer plantings.

Registration is open for public planting events this fall at Rock Mill Preserve in Skillman, October 13-15; Rainbow Hill Preserve in East Amwell, October 26-30; and Folusiak Preserve in Montgomery Twp., November 11-13. COVID guidelines will be strictly followed. For more information or to register, visit www.sourland.org/events.

“Montgomery Township is thrilled to be a reforestation partner of the Sourland Conservancy. We’ve successfully preserved nearly 40% of the land in our township, but that’s only the first step. With so many threats to our forests, we need to focus on stewardship by collaborating with landowners and nonprofit partners, such as the Conservancy and the Montgomery Friends of Open Space,” said Devra Keenan, Montgomery Township Mayor.

The Sourland Conservancy and its partners would like to encourage residents to “plant native” in their own backyards. Much of the region is privately owned, so resident participation is essential. If you would like more information about how to nurture nature in your own backyard, or if you would like to donate to support the restoration effort, please visit www.sourland.org.

“The Sourland Conservancy and our partners hope to continue planting for years to come,” said Ms. Cleveland. “The forest gives us all so much. Now it’s our turn to give back.”

Submitted by the Sourland Conservancy.

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