On April 15, 2011 the last piece of a four year long forest restoration project was completed on the campus of Drew University in Madison with the installation of over 1,100 native trees and shrubs by Drew students, faculty, community volunteers, volunteers from Pfizer (a member of NJA's Corporate Stewardship Council), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and New Jersey Audubon staff. The project was the vision of Drew Professor of Biology Dr. Sara Webb, who recognized, while conducting classes and research in the 80-acre forest preserve, that the forest conditions were degrading rapidly, thanks to overabundant deer in the preserve.
With no method of deer control little native undergrowth/regeneration remained to collect runoff and prevent erosion; or provide suitable habitat for forest interior species. To add insult to injury, invasive wisteria and Asiatic bittersweet vines were thriving in these conditions choking and toppling dozens of native trees each year which in turn lead to forest gap openings that were only being filled by other non-native invasive vegetation that the deer would not browse. Only with intervention would this ecosystem regain the structure and diversity that could again provided suitable habitat for native species and maximize groundwater replenishment, minimize sedimentation of receiving surface waters. (NOTE: the Drew Forest Preserve, which includes the Zuck Arboretum and the recently named Christine Hepburn Forest Restoration Area, is critically important for groundwater recharge and runoff reduction within the Passaic River watershed and the Buried Valley aquifer area.)
Though the USWFS' Partners in Fish and Wildlife Program, Drew, NJ Audubon and USFWS entered into an agreement to remove invasive vegetation and reforest the area. But it wasn't until a generous gift from former Madison residents and NJ Audubon Life Members, Christine Hepburn and her husband Ken Martin, that the project really came together with the installation of fencing around the entire 17-acre restoration area, thus excluding deer but allowing for movement of other wildlife though the small openings of the fence material.
"I am so excited; this is a long-held dream come true." said Christine Hepburn about the project. "For many years, the Drew woods provided me with Pileated Woodpeckers, Wood Thrushes, and other delights. This patch of woods brought me peace and joy but also sadness and frustration from seeing virtually all of the native understory mowed down by the deer again and again. I'm anxious to see how wonderful these woods become now that so many different new plants will be able to grow."
Brain Marsh of USFWS echoed Hepburn's remarks, "This project will reverse serious degradation of the Drew University Forest Preserve, thereby improving the forest’s capacity for hydrologic stabilization while also enhancing habitat for the native flora and fauna, including migratory birds and aquatic habitat species associated with the preserves' ponds and vernal pools.
"It is thrilling see ecological integrity and biodiversity returning to these woods. The rescue of this forest required intensive intervention that could not have happened without support and expertise of New Jersey Audubon, USFWS and environmentalist Chris Hepburn. My hope is that this project will inspire our university students and to inform the broader community about the value and complexity of natural ecosystems." said Professor Webb.
All photos taken at Drew University Project site. Photos by Lynne Delade and John Parke