Despite the tragic toll COVID-19 took on people of the world, many ecological benefits provided reasons we should not return to normal upon the pandemic’s conclusion.

In addition, the initial stay at home orders freed up time, and people sought out activities that they could do safely, improve their surroundings, and help others and the planet.

In Hopewell Valley, we saw increased civic engagement as many took a moment to reflect on the intersection between their private actions and its public impact. As the national political stage grew more polarizing, personal pursuits became more uniting.

Individuals not only publicly supported social services that promoted the welfare of others, but also privately began more personal endeavors. Outdoor activity and previously neglected projects now took center stage but with a new twist, namely, mindfulness.

For example, people approach gardening, a seemingly mundane task, with a new thoughtfulness by installing record numbers of native plants to improve their property while also seeking to restore the earth.

Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, said it best: “In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.” Replacing lawn and traditional gardens with native wildflowers and grasses restores biodiversity and transforms that area into life sustaining habitat for rapidly declining insect and bird populations.

In his New York Times best seller, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, Dr. Tallamy promotes the cumulative impact that individual landowners can wield.

Check out the Hopewell Valley pictures included with this column to appreciate the dramatic results gained through combining municipal and land trust preservations with residential restorations. Hopewell Valley has seen meaningful impact through engaging in land stewardship in and beyond our public lands and preserves. That work has, both figuratively and literally, “put Hopewell Valley on the map.”

Dr. Tallamy was impressed with the progress our community has made and our plan to proliferate more in the future. He intends to share our community’s story with his national audience and will include our success in his Homegrown National Park project.

We have a wealth of areas that will be shared on the Homegrown National Park map. Local land trusts have really stepped up their stewardship on public lands.

“Two D&R Greenway preserves, Penn View next to Kunkle Park in Pennington and our popular Cedar Ridge Preserve in Hopewell, were restored with plantings of 1,600 trees in October,” stated Linda Mead, president and CEO of the D&R Greenway Land Trust. “These restoration plantings contribute to the broader swaths of open spaces and habitats that are helping to alleviate climate change and support wildlife and disappearing bird species that need these lands to thrive.”

The Mercer County Park Commission has done extensive restorations throughout Hopewell Valley. Their website touts: “In 2010, 8.3 acres of abandoned agricultural fields on top of Baldpate Mountain were planted with over 1,600 native trees and shrubs. To prevent deer from damaging the planted trees, an 8-foot fence was built to protect the reforestation areas. This project was made possible by nearly 300 volunteer hours and generous grants from Conservation Resources, Inc., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Grainger Foundation.”

Moreover, in March 2020, the Park Commission passed a resolution stating that FoHVOS will “assist the Park Commission in meeting its goal to maintain and improve the natural areas under its care through conservation stewardship and restoration practices” and recognizes FoHVOS “expertise in the management, research, and restoration of natural areas in order to improve the ecological value off said natural areas.”

FoHVOS stewardship director Michael Van Clef shared: “While we happily steward our lands and that of our partners, we recognized that about 70% of the land throughout our Valley is privately owned. If FoHVOS were to achieve our mission of protecting the entire Valley, we had to look outward to the greater community. So, we put together a program to encourage residential community conservation.”

In a video, Dr. Van Clef shares photos of beautiful native gardens and meadows from homes throughout Hopewell Valley and explains the free Community Conservation program helping about 200 local residents achieve those results. Residential Community Conservation participants are asked to sign a pledge that they will not plant invasive species into their landscape.

The Hopewell Township Environmental Commission is also promoting land conservation as both a role model and through program. A one-acre native meadow was installed by FoHVOS in front of the Hopewell Township Public Works building. The Watershed Institute partially funded the project in appreciation of the storm water management benefits achieved through Community Conservation.

In addition, Environmental Commission member Andrew Plunkett initiated the Hopewell NJ Native Plant Swap site because, “I want to see native plants proliferate to repair the damage we have done to our biodiversity and ecosystems. By planting native plants, you are supporting the organisms such as insects, birds, and all other wildlife. If we want to restore our biodiversity and our ecosystems, we have to start with plants.” The EC has additional plans for more native planting initiatives.

The Sourland Conservancy has also engaged in projects on both public and private lands. Their Roots to Rivers riparian restoration project took place along Moores Creek, near Howell Living History Farm and was funded by The Watershed Institute and New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Sourland’s Ash Crisis Team offered native trees to plant at home.

All of the projects listed above will appear both on the map for Hopewell Valley as well as Homegrown National Park. Visit fohvos.org to learn more about how your property can “get on the map” and how to do your part to help fight climate change and commit to planting native wildflowers through FoHVOS Residential Community Conservation.

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Do you enjoy walking outside on the trails? On Nov. 1, FoHVOS will release the 2020 Edition of its “Free Guide to Walking Trails in the Hopewell Valley.”

More than 100 miles of trails are open to the public at the 25 locations described in this guide.

New in this edition are QR codes for each FoHVOS trail which provide interactive GPS trail maps along with trail updates and information.

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.