September 2, 2020

Volunteers Make a Difference In Preserving the Local Environment

HELPING HANDS: Since the onset of COVID-19, there has been an uptick in socially distanced volunteering for projects at Friends of Princeton Open Space. The organization is currently seeking people to assist at the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve. (Photo by Giuli Simmens)

By Anne Levin

When it comes to protecting natural resources, environmental groups count on volunteers to help keep up with planting, managing invasive species, and other essential projects. Local organizations such as Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS), The Watershed Institute, and Sourland Conservancy regularly involve the public in restoration and stewardship of the natural world.

Sourland Conservancy looks for volunteers throughout the year, and matches them with their specific areas of interest and expertise. The Watershed Institute relies on volunteers for everything from clearing brush and feeding animals to helping out at the annual Butterfly Festival or staffing the front desk.

The FOPOS Land Stewards Program is currently looking for volunteers to help at the 18-acre Forest Restoration Site on the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve. Sessions are September 2, 3, 9, and 12 from 8-11 a.m.

FOPOS usually has a stable crew of volunteers during the summer months. But Anna Corichi, the organization’s natural resource manager, noticed an increase in interest during the spring — which she attributes to changes brought on by the pandemic. “It’s been very popular due to COVID, because people who have been working from home have been coming out on weekdays to help,” she said. “I think people were eager and able to get outside and work in this way.”

In addition to volunteers, Corichi is currently looking for a college student to intern with the organization and work on an important project dealing with stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive grass that threatens native plants and natural habitats in the eastern United States.

“This is our main focus and big need right now, because the stiltgrass threatens the native plant population
and blankets the whole forest,” she said. “Part of the reason it’s so bad is that it’s such a prolific seeder. It starts growing in spring and is about to seed soon. We need help to remove it before it seeds. We’ve taken a unique approach this season, spraying it with vinegar instead of herbicides, and it’s working.”

Later this month, volunteers will help plant another layer of native shrubs including St. John’s wort and hydrangea, “to make the areas look good and provide habitat,” Corichi said.

Volunteers range from children to retired, older adults. Children require a guardian to accompany them. Email to register, or visit for specifics.

“I think people get involved in these projects because they want to make an impact and see things grow,” Corichi said. “If you plant in the spring and then see them leaf out — or maybe one flower — it’s rewarding.”