By Anastasia Marchese
The South Mountain Reservation is the largest park in Essex County, comprised of 2110 acres of varied natural landscape. It is also significant historically because it is the first county park in the United States, having been created in 1895. The park has a team of people who are dedicated to protecting it and making it even better; the South Mountain Conservancy.
According to the Essex County website the Conservancy “Through volunteer activities and advocacy, the SMC serves as a steward for this park and helps to preserve, protect, and enhance its ecology, infrastructure and natural beauty. As a partner with the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs and other environmental groups, the Conservancy strives to ensure this remarkable resource is maintained for current and future users, and its deciduous forest thrives as a balanced ecosystem.”
Dennis Percher, who is the Conservancy’s chair of the Board of Trustees since 2007, says it is the Conservancy’s job to be “stewards and advocates.”
Sometimes that means opposing current proposals to change the park in ways that would not best serve the delicate ecosystem it contains. One of these issues is on deer management.
Deer can “strip the forests of their ground-level understory, eradicating the saplings needed to replace aging trees. Without this vegetation, the forest’s layered ecological system – a food chain starting with grasses and bushes, insects, and birds, and topped by small predators – has largely disappeared,” wrote Percher in 2012. “Culling over the last few years, we are happy to report, has allowed a few, scattered wild plants to emerge. Most of the forest floor, however, still resembles a stark moonscape — if invasive thorn bushes or stilt grass have not taken hold. And those few wild plants will disappear if we do not continue to act, to take our responsibilities as stewards seriously.”
This philosophy is integral to the work the Conservancy does as one of its major efforts is to encourage the growth of native species. Forest regeneration is helping to “plant native species and remove invasive species” from the preserve.
Volunteers meet on the third Sunday of the month at the Reservation Dog Park from 9 a.m. to noon.-12am. Its focus is the Wildflower and Forest Preserve at Dog Park.
Other volunteers come together on the second Sunday of the month to work on the Trail Work Crew. For the past year almost they have been working on completing a half mile addition to the Lenape trail, which is the longest trail that runs through the park. It is not actually in the park but north of the reservation. It will however, provide greater access to the park for people living in West Orange. Percher says it is on schedule to be completed this autumn.
The Conservancy organizes 55 hikes a year. The hikes are of varying difficulty and are free to the public. The autumn hike schedule will be on the Conservancy website around Sept. 20 and will describe each hike’s length and difficulty level.
Another volunteer aspect of the organization is the Trash Tacklers. These are usually made up of outside organizations who have assembled a group of volunteers who want to come together on a specific day to clean up trash from the parks picnic areas and recreation spots. Often church groups, other nonprofits, or local businesses will sign up to clean on a weekend morning.
Each year the Conservancy organizes the Family Campout. This year it took place on Sept. 11and 12. In May, it organizes a 10, 20 and 60 mile race through the park and surrounding trails.
This natural resource is a boom for Essex County residents, and also a great opportunity for citizens to volunteer to help work together to rebalance the natural richness and diversity that existed prior to the great suburbanization of the area.
To find out more and/or volunteer go to https://www.somocon.org/.