$800k grant will help reforest South Mountain Reservation

“It looks like a healthy canopy, but it’s in fact a dying forest.”

Sometimes nature needs a little help.

Endowed with $800,000 in state and Essex County grants, the South Mountain Conservancy’s members, local residents and oth ers have embarked on a plan they hope will help reforest nearly all 2,000 acres of the South Mountain Reservation. Battered by what advocates call an overpopulation of deer and the subsequent loss of native flora, large swaths of the reservation resemble what one conservancy member calls a moonscape. The group intends to change that, even if it takes the better part of a decade, or even longer. “We’re on a mission to restore the forest,” Dennis Percher, the chairman of the conservancy’s board of trustees said yesterday, following the project’s announcement by Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.

Except for brambles of invasive plants, such as Japanese barberry, and a thick canopy of leaves, the forest floor is dangerously undergrown, said Percher. “You should not see through the forest like this,” Percher said while looking southeast into Maplewood Township, 200 feet or so below the park. “It looks like a healthy canopy, but it’s in fact a dying forest.”

Percher said he wants to make the forest “scary” again, to the point where if one walking off a trail just might get lost among the park’s oak, beech, hickory and maple stands. A census of living things last summer counted far fewer birds, amphibians and even insects than once thrived among the reservation’s hills, ponds, fields, streams and woods. That dearth of life has wreaked havoc with the biological chain, park advocates say.

And that’s where the $800,000 — half from the state’s Green Acres Fund and half from the county’s Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund — and hundreds of hours of volunteer and paid-for sweat equity comes in. The conservancy, with the help of community and corporate groups and landscape architects, will eventually plant hundreds of native species in 43 fenced-in sites, ranging from one to 14 acres, that altogether make up about 1 percent of the reservation.”But that will be the seed source for the other 99 percent,” said Percher, a trustee since 2003.

Biologists estimate it will take at least 10 years for the native species to take root throughout the reservation. Eventually, though, the forest will serve as an open invitation to frogs, turtles, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, butterflies, mi gratory birds and countless other critters, said conservancy trustee Tricia Zimic.”What I’ve noticed over a series of years is that every spring it was way too quiet,” said Zimic, a Maplewood artist who has walked daily in the reservation, which she calls her backyard, for seven years. “It looked liked a moonscape. I was wondering where everything was. Where are the plants? Where are the animals? Why doesn’t it look like the forest I grew up with?”

Inside a roughly 40,000-square-foot site enclosed by Cyclone fencing, adjacent to the dog park off Crest Drive, Zimic’s work is about to bloom. In what the conservancy calls a wildflower and butterfly meadow, a number of species of flowers and plants have taken root, courtesy of about 600 hours of volunteer work. “You come back in two months, and a lot of this will have greened out,” Percher said, calling it a harbinger of what’s to come on a much larger scale.

The project is not without controversy, however. Trained and licensed sharpshooters have killed nearly 300 deer over the last two winters, much to the displeasure of some community members, who say the deforestation is due as much to global warming and herbicide use as to hungry deer. Despite the kills, the deer population is still three to four times what a healthy forest this size can tolerate, Percher said.

DiVincenzo acknowledged the kills are controversial. But he stood by the decision to license and bring up to 10 sharpshooters into the park over about eight days in January and February of this year and last. He indicated the deer hunt in the reservation will continue next year, although perhaps for fewer days. “Our forest has been destroyed … because of all the deer in here,” he said in the park yesterday. “There’s no question we did the right thing.” He said the park project is likely the largest of its kind in the nation. “This is a beautiful reservation,” he said. “I want to bring it back.”

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