October 13, 2021

Students Step Up to Help Restore Critical Sourland Habitat

BUDDING ECOLOGISTS: From left: Will Bradford, Lilly Wurtz, Eve Cooke, and Kelsy Geletej are helping to save the Sourland Mountain Region by planting trees in public parks and preserves. Not pictured is fellow intern Robert Lucas.

By Anne Levin

The Sourland forest is in trouble, and some young members of the Mercer and Middlesex county communities have been digging in to help.

In recent weeks, five student interns have been helping to battle the devastation that the invasive ash borer, the high volume of deer, and other issues have inflicted on the 90-square-mile Sourland expanse.

The Sourland Mountain Region hosts 57 state-listed, threatened, and endangered plant and animal species. Interns Will Bradford, Eve Cooke, Kelsy Geletej, Robert Lucas, and Lillian Wurtz have been busy planting this fall, getting more than 1,000 trees into the ground last month. They are on target to add another 2,000 this month.

The wide variety of trees and shrubs are planted to restore what is known as the “understory.” The interns have also worked to stabilize streambanks, begin to fill holes in the tree canopy, and provide critical habitat for resident and migratory wildlife.

“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, in a press release. “It’s an amazing feeling giving back to the environment like this,” 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.”

Laurie Cleveland, executive director of the Sourland Conservancy, said the interns are helping to fill “a huge need.” Thanks to the invasive emerald ash borer and the over-population of deer, who eat a lot of native tree seedlings, the Sourland forest is on track to lose a million trees in the next few years.

“There aren’t any native trees in the understory,” said Cleveland. “Most of what is there is invasive shrubs and vines. Anything that does grow above [ground] gets eaten by deer. The problem is really big and complex, so having these interns get as many trees into the ground as possible is critical. All of them are wonderfully curious, ambitious, independent workers and great team players. I couldn’t ask for a better group of interns.”

Anyone, not just interns, can help to save the Sourlands and the surrounding environment. “There is something we can all do,” said Cleveland. “Every person can make a difference. The first and most critical thing is to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers in your own yard. And plant native plants — even if you’re just planting a pot on your patio or in a window box.”

The Sourland Region Forest Restoration project is sponsored by the Sourland Conservancy. Partners include The Watershed Institute, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Montgomery Township, Mercer County Park Commission, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, and other organizations.

Registration is open for public planting events this fall, the first of which is this week (through October 15) at Rock Mill Preserve in Skillman. Future opportunities are at Rainbow Hill Preserve in East Amwell October 26-30, and Folusiak Preserve in Montgomery Township November 11-13. Visit sourland.org/events to register.

“This is not just a feel-good issue,” said Carolyn Klaube, the Conservancy’s stewardship director. “It’s really an existential threat. We have the chance to really turn this around, and it is imperative that we do. We all rely on the ecosystem of the forest for fresh air, water filtration, and stormwater management, not to mention criiters like birds, who eat bugs off our agricultural crops. And we rely on pollinators to pollinate a third of the food on our table. We have a symbiotic relationship with nature. It’s not like we’re over here and nature is over there.”