(Published in the Princeton Packet, Oct. 18, 2011)

At a time when America, both nationally and locally, is often paralyzed by division, it’s worth taking a look at instances where divisiveness was overcome and an effective policy was carried out. One program that has managed to successfully navigate Princeton’s opinion-filled waters is the township’s management of the deer herd.
     When I moved to Princeton in 2003, deer were a common sight, even in the borough. Casually crossing the street in front of us as we walked to my daughter’s daycare, they were like rogue landscape crews making unsolicited house calls. Given enough time, they might have evolved bricklike patterns on their fur, the better to fit in while feasting on foundation plantings.
The next year, we were both flattered and dismayed to find them making frequent visits to our backyard on busy Harrison Street. Some had what appeared to be earrings, which we later learned were identification cards for an experimental contraception program. It seemed appropriate that Princeton deer should have special ornament.
            There was pleasure in having such beautiful, iconic creatures walk among us, but the downsides had begun accumulating with the deer. Township records extend back nearly 40 years, and show a steady increase in deer-automobile collisions. 33 roadkill in 1972 grew to 342 in 2000. Incidents of Lyme disease, which deer help to spread, were increasing dramatically statewide.
            A common explanation for increases in deer numbers is that land development is displacing them. “They have nowhere else to go,” one often hears, as if deer numbers would naturally stabilize if only development were stopped. But several factors undermine this explanation, one being simple mathematics. A doe can bear two young each year under favorable conditions. The suburban landscape, moreover, is not the habitat of last resort, but in fact serves the deer well, offering abundant edge habitat and evergreen shrubs to eat through the winter.
            Deer become numerous because we have long since banished predators like wolves and cougars that once kept deer numbers in ecological balance. The consequences of this lack of checks and balances go beyond the most common grievances about increased collisions, disease, and garden depredation.
Ask land stewards what the biggest threat to biodiversity is in New Jersey, and the typical answer will be deer. Though habitat fragmentation, invasive species and historical factors like plowing all play a role, it is the capacity of overabundant deer to collectively decimate native plant species that has greatly reduced the ecological functionality, and beauty, of our woodlands. Deer literally eat the forest’s future, be it tree seedlings or wildflowers attempting to form seeds.
The void in the woods left by deer’s preferential consumption of native plants has been filled by largely inedible exotic invasive species, greatly diminishing food options for wildlife.
            Having removed the predators that historically kept deer numbers in balance, we are left with the responsibility to step up and fill that lost link in the foodchain. Hunting is the usual approach, but though hunters were taking more than 200 deer each year by 2000, Princeton’s deer herd was still growing. The township finally made the controversial decision to hire professionals to increase the annual harvest. The increased killing, particularly the net and bolt technique used where proximity to neighborhoods precluded sharpshooting, elicited some passionate protests covered by NPR and the New York Times. The township persevered, however, and after ten years of professional deer management it’s possible to assess the results.
            Most notably, consistent governmental action has led to reduced overall killing of deer. In the last year before professionals were hired, traffic accidents and hunting killed 555 deer. Over the next ten years, the combined annual total of hunting, professional culling and traffic accidents steadily declined to 290 in 2010. The annual cost of hiring professionals also declined as the deer herd was brought down to more ecologically healthy numbers.
As deer numbers have declined, Princeton’s open spaces have undergone a botanical and ecological renaissance of sorts. Native shrubs like spicebush, previously gnawed to the ground, have rebounded to once again provide food and cover for migratory and nesting birds. Wildflower species that had all but disappeared from our woods are now reappearing.
After 2010, the township ended the professional culling for one year to see if bow hunting alone could control the deer herd. The results were disappointing, with deer numbers quickly rising. The option of contraception, still discussed, has proven expensive and impractical, particularly given state regulations. 
         This year, professional management will resume. The cost, around $60,000, can be thought of as the cost of ecological services formally provided for free by natural predators. It is also one of the ongoing costs of protecting Princeton’s substantial investment in open space. The harvested deer are donated to local food kitchens, where the meat can be eaten knowing that the deer lived a better, free-range life than any cow or chicken for sale at the local grocery store. What little health data I was able to find show a significant drop in Lyme disease in Princeton, contrasting with increasing rates elsewhere. And while dissent can help insure that the harvest is as safe and humane as possible, Princeton can look with some satisfaction at having collectively and effectively confronted a problem that was collectively created.

Steve Hiltner


(The following letter appeared in a Nov/2011 Town Topics)

       Over the weekend, I introduced my youngest daughter to the joy of jumping in leaves. We raked the crisp, dry leaves in the front yard onto a tarp, and I carried the cargo of fluff like Santa Claus to the backyard, where a kid-worthy pile took shape. She jumped in and covered herself like a kid might do at the beach. It's a fun way to end up with a clean front yard on a bright, cool autumn day. Eventually, the pile will be moved behind some shrubs in a back corner, or spread over the fenced-in vegetable garden where it will protect and feed the soil. 
        To find delight and utility in leaves seems a rare thing in Princeton, where the custom is to deposit all dead plant matter on the streets. Over the past year in the borough, the dumping of yardwaste at the curb has become non-stop, making it impossible to ever take a walk down a clean street. Storms have contributed periodically to the quantity, but habit seems the primarily driver. 
      During the mayoral campaign, one of the candidates decried the trash on downtown streets. But if borough street crews are being run ragged year-round, picking up little blobs of yardwaste with the giant "Claw" in residential neighborhoods, there's no time to keep downtown clean. It may feel good as taxpayers to be able to toss yardwaste onto asphalt without a second thought, but it doesn't make for a clean town. That which we reject becomes, ironically, a constant, dominating visual element on our streets. 
      The abuse of the current service suggests some sort of reform is needed. In the meantime, if there were one thing people could do to get back in sync with nature, it would be to view the fallen leaves and garden trimmings not as an end but as the beginning of a journey back to soil. Decomposition is the partner of composition, and it need not be relegated to a distant "finishing school" for compost.
      Watching the massive flooding in Thailand, my daughter asked why they couldn't make giant sponges to soak up all the water. It sounds whimsical, but it's conceivable that Princeton's flooding--whether by swollen rivers or streets "flooded" with leaves--could be reduced if homeowners living in the uplands dedicated some small space in the yard to allowing all that absorbent organic matter a chance to decompose and thereby feed new life. With such a change in habit, we mend the circle that is nature's endless cycling of nutrients, make our public spaces cleaner, and give kids a bit of joy on the way.

Stephen Hiltner

It’s Time to Rethink Massive, Messy, Machine-Driven Collecting of Leaves

(The following letter appeared in the Dec. 8, 2010 Town Topics)
The leaf season has once again revealed two opposite impulses in Princeton residents. The most common impulse, magnified by landscape crews, is to purge the yard of all leaves. The second impulse, contrary to custom but aligned with nature’s methodology, is to keep the leaves for fertilizer and wildlife value. The former impulse costs the Borough $200,000 each year to clean up (no figures are available for the Township). The second impulse imposes no public burden.
A common reason given for piling leaves in the street for pickup is that there are “just too many.” Another defense of the practice is that in a high-tax environment, it can be satisfying to see town employees working their hearts out on the streets for two months, cleaning up the mess. In addition, the leaves are not landfilled but instead hauled to a “finishing school” where their coarse nature is patiently mellowed and refined into compost available to all residents. 
That people find no room in their yards for a pile of leaves has much to do with the customary design of yards. With shrubs pressed against the house and fenceline, the yard becomes essentially one large “room” with no space dedicated to storage. A yard can be ornamental and spacious, yet still have a space or two defined by shrubs or fenced corral within which leaves can be piled, there to deflate over the winter and all but disappear by the next fall.
Mowing over leaves fallen on the lawn offers further proof that leaves are mostly fluff. The imposing blanket of brown is turned into a scattering of crumbs that can be left to fertilize the turf or used to mulch around shrubs.
True, the compost created at the Lawrenceville Ecological Center is a handy commodity for residents who make the drive, but it is not sustainable. Oil supplies on earth are diminishing at a rapid rate, extraction of remaining supplies is getting increasingly expensive and risky, and no replacement for the miraculous gasoline we burn daily without a second thought is in sight. Surprisingly, the mechanical grinding and turning required at the compost center consumes five times more fuel — $30,000 worth for the Borough alone — than is used to haul all the leaves and brush to the site.
We pay a lot in taxes, and Princeton’s consumption of energy seems a trifle compared to global use. But all consumption is local. Only the cumulative impact of countless small changes will steer the nation and world away from a dangerous course. The sooner we shift from fuel-intensive town services to those that consume less, the more likely that future generations will be able to enjoy some semblance of the lifestyle we claim as our right. Oil doesn’t last forever, and the leaf piles are mostly air. These two facts alone should be enough to cause a rethinking of the town’s massive, messy, machine-driven response to autumn leaf fall.
Stephen Hiltner