PRESERVING THE RESERVE by Tia Swanson
Overseers and protectors of the gift of our forebears.
It was before 8 on a Saturday morning in December when Sharon Salmon emerged from her car at Tulip Springs, a favorite gathering spot in the South Mountain Reservation. The day was bright but frigid – not the most conducive for a six-mile hike, but Salmon and her comrades were undeterred. And they were not the only ones who braved the hour and the cold to find a moment of peace on the hilltops of this beloved Essex County Park. A group of runners was also readying to hit the trails. It was just another day in the woods.
The reservation’s 2110 mostly-forested acres, just miles from the country’s largest city, are so central to the identity of the old suburban towns that encircle them that they almost run the danger of being taken for granted. For an oasis of tranquility, however, the reservation has had a fraught history, and, to this day, depends on a small group of dedicated volunteers to keep it open, thriving, and well-used.
Salmon is one of them. An Irvington resident and hiking enthusiast who got her start several years ago on the periodic free hikes offered by the South Mountain Conservancy and who has since conquered trails near and far, Salmon leads hikes in the reservation as a thank you to the conservancy for getting her started.
She was joined that morning by Maplewood resident Dennis Percher, who has chaired the conservancy for 15 years and who has a similar story. “I was just jogging in the reservation (in late 2001) and I see clods of dirt on the trail and then I see these two guys ... (with shovels). I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and they said, ‘We’re volunteers with the South Mountain Conservancy.’”
It turns out the two men were not stealing plants – a problem for many years when the reservation was first founded – but clearing out the swale, the small ditch that runs alongside a trail and allows for proper water run-off. And Percher quickly joined them. He now devotes between 25 and 35 hours a week to keeping the conservancy going.
Although the reservation has been part of the county park system since it was cobbled together in the late 1890s, it has suffered through the vicissitudes of county funding and attention for nearly all of that time. It has had a conservancy overseeing it only since the turn of this century.
The conservancy owes its existence to County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. He may not be universally admired by reservation enthusiasts – some of whom complain he is too bent on developing the park – but he also is the one who figured out that a conservancy could get the county money from the state. “Instead of being the single entity (the Essex County Park system) to apply for a Green Acres grant, each of the separate conservancies can do so,” Percher explained. That strategy has paid off as this conservancy and those overseeing the other large county parks, have been successful in getting quite a lot of funding from the state.
But the conservancy has done much more.
In 20 years, it has become indispensable to keeping the reservation open and functioning. In addition to maintaining more than 60 miles of trails and the maps and kiosks along them, as well as offering hikes to introduce the glories of the woods to new devotees, the conservancy manages and oversees the regeneration plots that the county was able to build with Green Acres funding but has neither the money nor the bandwidth to maintain. In recent years, the conservancy also has created the Wildflower Sculpture Garden, the Fairy Trail, the family campout, and a bundle of Citizen Science projects.
Except for those years when it gets a state grant, it does all of this for about $60,000 a year, and with a mountain of volunteer labor overseen by members of the conservancy board.
Dave Barry, who retired from his job as Director of Youth and Wellness at the South Mountain YMCA four years ago, was recruited by Percher to head up community outreach, but like other board members, quickly found himself doing more. These days, he also oversees the Chainsaw Gang, which annually clears between 150 and 300 trees off the trails. He also is co-chair of the Trash Tacklers, in charge of recruiting school, scouting and community groups to pick up litter. His co-chair organizes individuals to help, and together the volunteers devote more than 1000 hours (about one and a half months) to the task annually, hauling away more than 300 bags of refuse from the trails.
“I didn’t want to sit in front of my computer or TV all day,” Barry said, when asked about his involvement. A longtime resident of Maplewood, he too, is a reservation hiker – sense a pattern emerging? – and since his retirement, walks about five miles every day on reservation trails. He makes a point of using them all. “It takes me about a month,” he said. In addition to losing 45 pounds, the daily walks help keep him apprised of problems. “I enjoy the walking, but I enjoy doing things, too, so I see things that need to be done and I get them done,” he said matter-of-factly.
Other volunteers and volunteer groups create and blaze trails, help plant trees in the regeneration sites, and do general maintenance. Eagle Scout projects have focused on building necessary bridges, repairing picnic tables, and other large endeavors. Overall, in 2022, more than 1,300 volunteers devoted more than 3,000 hours (about 4 months) to the reservation.
It is not clear that this is what the county bigwigs had in mind when they oversaw the creation of the nation’s first County Parks Commission in 1895. They did know development was coming: The population in Newark had grown fivefold in 40 years, from under 40,000 to 200,00. The original idea was to create a park hub that radiated out from Branch Brook Park, although eventually that plan gave way to the necessity of amassing land before development began.
The first plot of land purchased for what would become the South Mountain Reservation was indicative of what would follow. It was tiny. Although several purchases for the reservation involved lots of more than 100 acres, most of the land was bought in small parcels. That first plot was just more than a tenth of an acre, a piece of land on what is now Northfield Avenue, directly across from what is now St. Cloud Avenue, and part of the Treetop Adventure Course. It was bought in December 1895 for $1500. Considering the man in charge of procuring land had just $20,000 to spend that year, this was not an auspicious beginning. But things went more quickly (and cheaply) and by the end of 1896 the county had bought nearly 475 acres of land, at an average cost of $75 an acre. Those acres came from 35 separate property owners. Although there were few if any houses on the property secured for the reservation, people who owned homes in Orange and South Orange were routinely given wooded rural tracts so they could cut down trees to heat their homes. Since no one had ever thought of selling vacant lots, no one knew what the price for them should be. Because of that, more than half of the land that eventually became the reservation was acquired through eminent domain.
And because the trees on the plots were cut for fuel and later harvested for the paper mills in Millburn, the reservation did not look the way it does now. The founders turned to the nation’s preeminent park designers – the Olmsted family firm – to produce a plan for the reservation. Although it failed to execute its primary vision, the firm is still responsible for much of the look of today’s reservation. The Olmsteds were interested in creating wilderness vistas for those who came by carriage and, eventually, automobile, and advocated for a series of winding lanes leading to these vistas. Most of the lanes remain unbuilt and those that do exist do not precisely follow the plan. But the Olmsteds were also instrumental in reseeding the reservation with native trees and shrubs. The rhododendrons and laurels in the reservation are their work, as are the large numbers of beech trees (now, sadly, under threat) and the pines and hemlocks.
If the Olmsteds were interested in vistas, they had little time for individual species and pet projects. Frederick Law Olmsted once remarked that the most interesting thing about him was that he was not a gardener or botanist, and he wasn’t especially interested in plants. Although lady slippers and trillium were native to the area, and Herbert Durand – one of the members of the famous artistic Durand family in Maplewood – proposed that more should be added, the Olmsteds scoffed. “Work of this kind (creating vistas) is of far more importance than establishing colonies of trillium.”
Times – and perspectives – change. The newest project the conservancy hopes to undertake this spring is the creation of a pollinator field on a piece of unused open space at the northeast corner of South Orange Avenue and Cherry Lane. The idea is to create a wildflower field, complete with signage and viewing platforms, to educate residents while bringing sustenance and protection to our rapidly disappearing pollinators.
It is the brainchild of Lori LaBorde, one of the conservancy’s newest members, and a trained ecologist and naturalist, who arrived in South Orange with her family eight years ago. Now a resident of Maplewood, and co-owner of the The Pretzel Shop storefront in South Orange, LaBorde went snowshoeing with her then-infant daughter on her back in the reservation not long after arriving and quickly became lost.
When she happened upon a kiosk with a trail map, she was overwhelmed with gratitude and immediately resolved to become part of the organization that had put it there.
She is now head of Citizen Science for the conservancy, and, in addition to the pollinator field, oversees a frog monitoring program, a nest watch and the annual family campout, for which she concentrates on getting young families to interact with nature and begin to become its stewards.
She is intent on helping build a citizenry that enjoys, and protects, the environment.
There is one thing, however, on which she, the Olmsteds, and all those involved in the reservation through its long and complicated history can agree.
“The woods are an amazing place.”
Tia Swanson is awed by the work of the conservancy and its members. She invites all to become members at the group’s website, somocon.org.