In the mid 1990’s I was working in Pennsylvania and my fiancé, now husband, Paul got a new job in New York so we settled on moving to New Jersey as a mutually inconvenient compromise. I found a house in West Windsor with proximity to Route 1 to simplify our commute.
As we approached the lot, Paul refused to go inside, “Where are the trees? Why would you look at a house without trees?” he protested.
I called the realtor. “New plan. I’d like a lot with trees and if it happens to have a house on it, that would be great.” We refocused our search to Hopewell and, 24 years later, still reside in the same house on a treed lot.
Fortunately, we found that Hopewell folks share our love of trees and have a rich tradition of environmental activism. Our neighbors enjoyed reciting the celebrated Hopewell legend of rerouting Interstate 95 out of town; The story always concluded with the important moral — our community can and will fight the good fight to preserve the rural character of Hopewell Valley.
Emboldened by the I-95 win, Hopewell residents honed their skills and won many more hard-fought battles against inappropriate development. In 1987, a group of concerned citizens formed Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space to address the growing impact of suburban sprawl. The impetus for action was a major roadway that was slated to intersect beautiful Pennington Borough lands that contained a mature beech forest and a 17-acre lake.
In 1993, years of effort resulted in a tremendous success as FoHVOS brokered a deal whereby Mercer County purchased all 116 acres and preserved Curlis Lake Woods.
More recently the trees of Curlis Lake Woods inspired local Pennington resident and author Andrea Fereshteh to write a book just published by Simon & Schuster, entitled, In the Company of Trees: Honoring the Sacred Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Trees.
Andrea commented, “thank goodness for FoHVOS’ efforts – the woods are magical and it would have been a tragedy to lose them for a roadway! I can’t speak highly enough for our local preserved lands and all the healing potential they hold. This book exists because of those woods!”
After Curlis Lake Woods, more preservation efforts took place throughout Hopewell Valley. Most took over a decade to fully complete and relied heavily on partnerships with multiple municipalities, nonprofit and community organizations. A sample of notable efforts include the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain, St. Michaels Preserve, and Mount Rose Preserve, led by FoHVOS, D&R Greenway Land Trust, and New Jersey Conservation Foundation, respectively.
While land preservations have saved our trees, land stewardship and restoration are key to ensuring good forest health. New Community Conservation restoration projects kicked off throughout Hopewell Valley with partnerships similar to those used in preservation. The energy is encouraging as new life is restored at schools, municipalities and residential developments like Bear Tavern, Hopewell Township and Brandon Farms.
A particularly inspiring restoration is led by the Hopewell Township Environmental Commission partnerships to plant new chestnut trees on public land.
For thousands of years, the native American chestnut was among the most prolific and important forest trees. But in the late 1800’s, an Asiatic bark fungus was accidentally introduced into North America and within 50 to 60 years, three to four billion American chestnut trees died. Although a small percentage of American chestnut trees survived the blight, the great chestnut forests that had existed for millennia were gone.
With each loss of a species our forests become less resilient and less able to cope with future threats. Biodiversity is important.
“Invasive species management is one of the foremost conservation and ecological challenges we face. The systematic and sustained loss of the American chestnut is an example of what is at stake,” explains Dr. Jeffrey M. Osborn, dean of the School of Science at The College of New Jersey.
Last spring, the township and FoHVOS planted 170 specially chosen nuts in protective tubes within a deer-fenced section of the Fiddlers Creek Preserve. About 40 percent germinated and survived the first growing season.
Smaller American chestnut seedlings were planted at nearby preserves in partnership with the D&R Greenway Land Trust, The Watershed Institute and Sourland Conservancy. Hopewell Environmental Commission member Mike Aucott initiated the chestnut planting project and directed the plantings.
This spring FoHVOS will do another large chestnut planting, and the Hopewell Valley Regional School District will also join the restoration efforts.
Thomas Smith, the district’s superintendent of schools, voiced the importance of trees: “Planting a tree like the ‘mighty American Chestnut’ embodies the educational path of our students: Planting the seed, and nurturing the young sapling so that one day they will stand strong on their own. Like our expectations for our students to give back to the community…once fully grown, these trees will give back to our community by providing beauty, shade and fresh air.”
Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space.