Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Princeton's Nowhere Land in Community Park North: Where It's Been, Where It's Headed

The municipality of Princeton's newsletter broke the news last week that the town has been awarded a $552,000 Climate Solutions grant to restore 45 acres of forest at Community Park North. Kudos to the town, and to FOPOS, which will help with the project. Now, what sort of forest, you might ask, is so degraded that it requires more than $10,000/acre to restore? I stopped by last week to have a look.

It's appropriate that the sculpture that now graces the entrance to the woods at the back of the Unitarian church parking lot appears to be in mourning. 

Many hikers who head down the trail won't notice anything amiss, but for me, Community Park North woods has the feel of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Walking its trails, you can imagine yourself to be one of the fortunate or unfortunate survivors after civilization has extinguished itself, leaving invasive species to overrun the wreckage. 








In every direction, there's a jumble of fallen trees. 

Waves of stiltgrass extend off into the distance, 

punctuated by snarls of multiflora rose heavily armed with thorns, 

dense tangles of Japanese honeysuckle vine,  

and dense stands of honeysuckle shrub.
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Further down the trail, I found a nice rivulet remembered from when I was working as FOPOS's first resource manager, fifteen years ago. The super-invasive lesser celandine has since moved in, which surely will complicate any restoration effort. Lesser celandine, aka fig buttercup, likes to get an early start in mid-winter, the better to coat ever more of Princeton's terra firma with its inedible foliage.

Towering over the wreckage, some remnants of the conifer forest remain. Birders will tell you that owls like to perch in the dense canopies of Princeton's remaining pine plantations. Sure enough, as I walked through this wreck of a forest in late afternoon, a great-horned owl called out in the distance.  



When people hear the name "pine" in New Jersey, they tend to think of the Pinelands, but Princeton's scattered pine plantations have nothing to do with that distinct plant community growing in the sandy soils of southern Jersey. The white pines and spruce in CP North were planted in rows, and are not even considered native this far south.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the government encouraged the planting of conifers in abandoned farm fields, of which Princeton had many. Chances are good that these conifers were planted with high expectations of growing quality lumber, but the untended trees grew up knotty and crooked, and cast such deep shade that nothing could grow beneath them. The obliteration of native diversity that began with the plow and livestock was followed by a further erasure of the land's memory beneath deep shade and stifling pine mulch. 

Princetonians who strolled through this woods in the years before Hurricane Sandy will remember it being strangely sterile, yet profound in its stillness. Unlike other areas of Mountain Lakes, where dense tangles of invasive shrubs had made the second growth deciduous forests impenetrable. the pine plantation offered vistas. You could see through the forest, wander off trail, and explore beneath the trees on their thick, soft bed of needles. Smaller plantations were planted around the same time in Herrontown Woods and the Institute lands.

In Community Park North, a few trees had fallen over time, creating small openings here and there where invasive species could take hold--mostly garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, and some Japanese angelica trees. Then on October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through, leaving behind a jumble of fallen trees--a giant version of those piles of I Ching sticks people used to toss in the 1970s. 

Incredibly, the forest has changed little since I paid a visit in November, 2012, with my younger daughter and her ducklings.

Yes, ten years ago, after Clark Lennon, Ted Thomas, and other FOPOS volunteers had reopened the trails, we took two ducklings for a nature walk through battered and broken Community Park North. When ducklings are young, they will follow you anywhere, and can walk great distances.
And what native plants manage to grow in this post-apocalyptic landscape? Poison ivy is doing very well, thank you, growing up snags and bearing abundant berries that birders will tell you are particularly beneficial for birds.

Small American holly trees provide some winter green. 

Stout wood reed testifies to the wet ground.
A few ferns survive amidst the stiltgrass.

Blackberries with their grooved stems promise summer berries.
There are a few clumps of goldenrod,
and the biggest elderberry bushes I've ever seen. This one has a trunk 4" thick.
You can identify elderberry by its warty stems. It would be worth figuring out whether this is the native elderberry or the European species.



Dominating many areas are tens of thousands of young ash trees--progeny of a few scattered ash that must have grown up with the pines and spruce sixty years ago. These saplings will surely have their lives cut short by the introduced emerald ash borer. 

Standing amidst these young trees, so ardent in their crowded aspirations and yet lacking any future, you can feel like a nowhere man, standing in a nowhere land, making all its nowhere plans for nobody. 

It will not be easy to restore this broken land, even with $552,000. Most intimidating is what cannot be seen: the soil seedbank, which currently is packed with trillions of seeds of stiltgrass, garlic mustard, lesser celandine, japanese honeysuckle, etc., ready to germinate year after year. It will take many years of planting and weeding to exhaust the soil of its nonnative invasive seeds and shift to a native seedbank.

According to an article in the Town Topics,  most of the surviving conifer trees will be left standing. But what to do with all the fallen trees, which can be viewed as a visual blight and fire hazard or as sequestered carbon and food source for insects and fungi?

Given all the carbon sequestered in existing trees and the profligate pilings strewn about, as well as underground in the roots of the dead trees, the announcement of the grant uses careful wording about "resetting carbon sequestration trajectories." The new plantings "are expected to increase the amount of carbon sequestered by the forest in future years."

The restoration work will focus on areas that have remained remarkably devoid of regrowth, either due to the stifling effect of stiltgrass and other invasives, intense browsing by deer, or the paucity of native seeds in the soil. These areas can clearly be helped along by some planting and protecting of native species. 

I hope that some areas can be managed as forest openings with summer wildflowers and native shrubs--a habitat lacking in our otherwise densely wooded open space. 

Three very important assets for this ambitious project are Anna Corichi, FOPOS director of stewardship, Wendy Mager, who has led FOPOS with a steady hand for decades, and Cindy Taylor, the open space manager for Princeton. It will take all their talents, persistence, and organizational skill to bring this nowhere land back from centuries of farming, stifling shade, and nonnative invasion.

In the meantime, I encourage people to check out this apocalyptic landscape before work begins. There is something romantic in landscapes that have been utterly neglected. My best guess is that this fascination dates back to an earlier time in the evolution of human society, when a nomadic tribe would come upon the remains of past settlement. Abandonment would have been good news, suggesting that game populations had had time to rebound, and artifacts left behind could be repurposed by the new settlers.

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