Cruising with the Techs: Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area

The Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area is comprised of 3,282 acres in Sussex and Morris counties. The WMA is owned by the State of NJ and is open clip_image002to the public for hunting and passive recreation. Nestled in the heart of the WMA is the 349 acre NJ Audubon Sparta Preserve. The Sparta Mountain WMA has a rich history. The Edison Mines in the heart of the WMA were built by Thomas Edison in the early part of the 20th century to extract iron. Because of the development surrounding the mines, the area was one of the first in the world to have electricity. Many of the mines are still open and are partially fenced in to prevent accidents. While working the WMA we have stumbled upon several mines as well as ruins from processing buildings, home sites, roads, and railroads.

NJ Audubon Stewardship Team has partnered with the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife to inventory the forests of the Sparta WMA. The NJA Forestry team is comprised of Project Director Don Donnelly, Project Coordinator Jeremy Caggiano, and Forest Technicians Lisa Dunne and Liz O’Rourke. The goal of conducting forest inventory is to find what species comprise the WMA with the goal of eventually creating management plans that will drive sustainable decision making for the next ten years. Inventory is conducted according to Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) national standards. This process involves creating a grid of points where data will be collected and compiled into a database. At each plot, a series of over-story and understory measurements were taken. clip_image004Plots were laid out in a 5x10 chain (330’x660’) grid, or one plot every 5 acres for a total of over 600 plots. All of our points were loaded into a handheld Garmin GPS. Once arrived at the point, a plot center is established in which all of the measurements are based around. In each plot, trees were selected based on their diameter at breast height (DBH) and distance from plot center using a 15 basal area factor prism. Basal area is a term that refers to the surface area that a tree takes up on the forest floor. Tree height, DBH, and percent living crown were measured. In addition, each tree was assigned a most valuable timber product. This includes sawlogs, firewood, and even cull (leave behind). Understory was also taken into consideration. A 1/100 acre plot was laid out (12 ft radius from plot center) and all woody vegetation was identified. Height class and DBH as well as plant origin were recorded. Once the WMA is broken up into discrete forest stands, we will revisit plots to observe and collect data on the herbaceous layer, or the non-woody plants that make up the forest floor. This includes everything from wildlflowers, rushes, grasses, and invasive plants such as Japanese barberry and multiflora rose.

clip_image006The data we have collected will be analyzed using NED2- Northeast Ecosystem Decision Modeling software. The WMA will be stratified into individual forest stands that are distinguished by their species composition. This software is also able to model forest growth into the future. NJA will use the analysis to develop forest management plans specific to Sparta Mountain WMA and the goals of NJDEP.

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One of the best perks of the job of a forest technician is the wildlife and plants that we encounter. We spotted a North American Porcupine in our early days at Sparta WMA. It was climbing up a steep ridge just east of the Edison area while we were scrambling down. It waddled away as quickly as it could and climbed an eastern hemlock. Our plot was just a few yards from his perch and he stared down at us while we tallied trees. After a few minutes we realized all the American beeches in the vicinity had had their bark stripped. They no doubt fell victim to this innocent looking bark eater.

Pink and yellow lady slipper orchids have been spotted this spring at Sparta WMA. clip_image010Pink lady slippers are coming up in the timber harvest area, while we stumbled upon the smaller yellow variety deep in the swamps in the heart of the WMA. Black bears have been quite active since the arrival of spring to New Jersey. Usually we only catch a glimpse of a bear or hear it crashing through the brush while it’s high-tailing it in the opposite direction. But a few bears have been curious about what two girls are doing deep in their woods and wandered close, possibly catching a whiff of our packed peanut butter and jellies.

Forest inventory will wrap up this week but work will continue as we run the data through NED2. We will also be back out in the WMA collecting data on the herbaceous layer in the coming months.

Co-authored by: Lisa Dunne and Liz O’Rourke -- Photos by: Lisa Dunne