The long awaited forest thinning project at our Hovnanian Sanctuary is finally underway.

Sunny skies and warm temperatures provided a near perfect day on Wednesday June 22nd, for NJ Audubon staff members to guide a tour of the forest restoration project that is now underway at the Hovnanian Sanctuary. Attending the tour were representatives from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, New Jersey Forest Fire Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, local residents and reporters. The activity is clearly obvious right from the roadside of Davenport Road in Berkeley Township, so we didn’t need to walk very far before the discussion began.

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This stewardship project aims to restore approximately 300 acres of pineland forest to a more typical, fire-adapted savannah type ecosystem. The pinelands forest evolved as an ecosystem that was historically subject to frequent forest fires. As such, the plants and animals native to this area are specialized at surviving in this unique environment, and in fact, their numbers begin to decline when fire is excluded from the region. Our restoration project will provide better habitat for a variety of threatened and endangered species known to exist in the area, but whose populations have declined as a result of the changing environment.

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The Hovnanian Sanctuary hasn’t seen forest fires or any other type of active management in at least 30 years. Fire has been excluded from the property due to its proximity to nearby homes. Simply reintroducing fire at this point is not an option due to the excessively high levels of fuel (vegetation) within the forest, and if a fire were to break out now, it might be uncontrollable and catastrophic to the local residents. Therefore, the first step in the process is to mechanically reduce the amount vegetation by selectively removing the less vigorous trees. This is similar to weeding a garden. The process improves spacing among the residual trees and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. The increased light will stimulate a more diverse herbaceous and shrub layer. Once the fuel load is reduced to a safe level, prescribed burning can be employed to really restore the site to a pinelands fire-adapted ecosystem. The photo at the right shows treatment area on the left vs. untreated on the right.  Note how dense the vegetation has become in the absence of fire or other management.  Overall, the project will take several years to fully implement.

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Thinning contractor John deRouville uses a large feller to cut and bundle low quality trees. The trees are chipped onsite and trucked to a facility to be converted into mulch. A recent study was conducted at the University of Chicago using mulch produced from a NJ pinelands thinning project similar to ours. The results indicated that the pine mulch was comparable to peat moss as a soil amendment or growing medium. We think that this is exciting news since the pine mulch is a much more environmentally friendly option than peat moss, which is mined from bogs and considered a non-renewable resource. While it is exciting that we are producing a renewable resource as a byproduct of achieving our restoration goals, it certainly does not generate anywhere near enough revenue to offset the costs associated with completing the project. In fact, without the generous support of our partners, this project would not be feasible. Our partners include; Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, New Jersey Forest Fire Service, and USDA Forest Service.

We’ll have more updates as the project progresses.

Photos taken by Don Donnelly at the Hovnanian Sanctuary.