Hopewell Valley communities embrace conservation

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Students and staff of Bear Tavern Elementary School, along with members of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and Nectars Landscape and Design, break ground for Bear Tavern’s outdoor classroom.

The native plant garden in the new outdoor classroom at Bear Tavern Elementary School is in bloom, and the pond offers a beautiful respite, not only for students and teachers, but also for the many species who can call it home.

The planned meadow will entail plenty of work and won’t look like much initially. Yet 400 milkweed plants will provide food for butterflies and a place to lay eggs; native grasses will provide cover, and New England aster should bloom in September 2019—welcoming this year’s students to school and fueling adult butterflies for their southern journey to Mexico.

On Aug. 30, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space land steward Beth Craighead will lead a group of volunteers to plant a second meadow adjacent to the new outdoor classroom.

When planning for the new FoHVOS Community Conservation initiative, Bear Tavern Principal Chris Turnbull carefully considered the timing. “That is the day of our open house and orientations,” he said. “It may be the perfect day to get the community together. If we did it in the morning we could allow people to look at their classrooms then help.”

Community Conservation is a new program that FoHVOS initiated at the end of last year. Current Hopewell Valley collaborators include environmentally conscious residents, companies, schools, hospitals, municipalities, and other nonprofit organizations.

FoHVOS executive director Lisa Wolff said that facilitating connections and partnerships are the key to maximizing environmental impact. Their goal is to make it as easy as possible for anyone to help preserve the Valley’s character through land preservation and natural resource protection.

“Most of our Community Conservation initiatives include several partners and we bring in whatever resources are necessary,” Wolff said. FoHVOS has matched landscape architects, other professionals, volunteers, and even funders to projects.

Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson provided a grant to FoHVOS to implement the garden meadows at Bear Tavern Elementary School. Representatives were pleased to see the Nectars Landscape and Design plan that added a pond, a stage, and mindfulness areas to the outdoor classroom as more volunteers and funders stepped up.

“Janssen funded the meadows and interpretive signage that the school designed their biodiversity and ecosystem curriculum around,” said Peg Forrestel, Janssen’s director of community affairs. “We liked this project because it enhanced the environment and provided interactive STEM education for the students. We also valued the Community Conservation concept, which leveraged our investment to enable others to add beauty and expanded uses for the area.”

While Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space match resources to projects, their considerable expertise also allows them to directly aid the amazing, growing sustainability efforts locally. FoHVOS stewardship director Mike Van Clef, helped The Pennington School identify invasive species in and around one of the school’s focal points, Lowellden Pond. With this information, Van Clef was able to give a detailed report of the invasive species that can be removed from the area and which native species could replace them, in order to craft a more environmentally sound space.

Stony Brook principal Steve Wilfing, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space executive director Lisa Wolff, HVRSD facilities director Tom Quinn, HVRSD superintendent Tom Smith, Bear Tavern principal Chris Turnbull and FoHVOS stewardship director Mike Van Clef. Photo by Benoit Cortet.

Headmaster William Hawkey of The Pennington School says he is excited about the opportunity to renew their pond and make it a healthy place where people want to spend time outdoors. The pond is not only important to the school community but also to the residents of Pennington who appreciate the space on Sunday strolls and morning dog-walks. Removing the invasive species and filling the area instead with native plants would help improve the water quality of the pond and make it an even more appealing space.

In addition to improving land and water quality, Pennington School’s environmental science teacher and resident sustainability advisor, Margo Andrews, stresses the importance of exposure to the outdoors and the observation, visual, and exploratory learning that students receive from spending time in their outdoor environment.

FoHVOS Community Conservation naturally lends itself to educating the public while improving the environment. When a group of Brandon Farms residents and Stony Brook Elementary School families came out to create a 10,000 square foot meadow, Van Clef told participants, “Yesterday, we removed the sod that was devoid of life. If nature could give lawns a name, it would be ‘green concrete.’ We’ll be installing over 2,000 native plants today and transforming this unused lawn area into a meadow filled with beautiful wildflowers that will attract butterflies and bees. We’ll be giving back to nature something that we had taken years ago and in the process inspiring Stony Brook students to appreciate and admire nature.”

Mike Shevlin, Brandon Farms POA board president cited additional advantages, including reduced annual maintainance costs and increased opportunities for outdoor learning experiences at Stony Brook.

Since Community Conservation is new, most of the initiatives are fairly recent, however FoHVOS made an effort to capitalize on previous success.

“Community Conservation is a great program because it is so inclusive and expands our reach through both public and private partnerships,” Wolff said, “but FoHVOS is also recognizing and building upon the success of our previous private land stewardship program that included 160 people owning 3,200 acres of land. They have purchased over 25,000 wholesale native plants since 2013.”

The Bean Family meadow represents an early project whose path Wolff hopes future projects will echo. Their initial project converted a detention basin behind their home to a meadow. The project has inspired other local residents and homeowner associations to seek similar results.

They have hosted garden tours and have incorporated more sustainable features into the landscape including a rain garden that helps with water run-off issues, a grove of white pine trees that screen against cold winter winds and provide habitat for wildlife while reducing home heating costs, and native plants to provide beauty and shade the air-conditioning unit to help reduce cooling costs.

Another FoHVOS Community Conservation partner that comes with an interesting history is Hopewell Township. FoHVOS has been partnering with the municipality for over two decades on their Clean Communities program that allows volunteers to earn income for their favorite non-profits by clearing trash from local streets.

Due to this experience the municipality was enthusiastic to join. “FoHVOS suggested that we convert an acre of lawn to meadow near our Public Works building, and it made sense. FoHVOS has been an excellent partner and the meadow provides environmental benefits, and reduces our maintenance costs,” said Kevin Kuchinski, mayor of Hopewell Township. “When they added that the Community Conservation partnership included The Watershed Institute joining us as funders to offload costs, it was no-brainer.”

FoHVOS will hold its annual fundraising gala Sept. 15 at Glenmoore Farm. For more information or to buy tickets, go online to fohvos.org.