Organization beautifies, spreads word about little-known open spaces

Save the Environment of Moorestown keeps areas accessible to the public.

Special to the Sun. Save the Environment of Moorestown (STEM) has been clearing Moorestown’s open spaces, and on July 13 and July 14, they received some help. A group of 10 First United Methodist Church volunteers pulled out invasive species, cleared blocked trails and laid down bridges at the Esther Yanai Preserve and South Valley Woods.

With summer travel plans largely cancelled or restricted, Moorestown residents now more than ever may be looking for local adventures.

Save the Environment of Moorestown (STEM) has been hard at work clearing Moorestown’s open spaces to give residents a place of exploration and refuge in their hometown. 

Mark Pensiero, president of STEM, said when the organization was founded, its goal was acquiring and preserving open spaces within the township. With the number of open spaces dwindling, his priority as president is to enhance and upgrade the little-known spaces in town.

Pensiero said throughout the summer, his goal has been to make Moorestown’s open spaces more accessible to the public and to clear the invasive species trying to take hold of the areas. Recent storms exacerbated the debris and inaccessibility of the trails, but STEM was fortunate to join forces with the First United Methodist Church of Moorestown’s youth group.

Kathy Clawges, youth minister at FUMC, said the church youth group had a mission trip to Burlington, Vermont, planned for this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation. 

She was contemplating ways the group could still take part in service work while maintaining social distance when she was contacted by one of her fellow FUMC parishioners, Ellen Maines, who told Clawges STEM was in need of some help clearing trails. Clawges said the work seemed like a perfect fit, and she was excited to show her youth group members they don’t have to go far to perform acts of service. 

“It was an opportunity for the kids to see they don’t have to go 12 hours away; it’s right here in our backyard,” Clawges said. 

On July 13 and July 14, a group of 10 FUMC volunteers pulled out invasive species, cleared blocked trails and laid down bridges at the Esther Yanai Preserve and South Valley Woods. The volunteers wore masks and socially  distanced as they performed their work, and during the two days, volunteers provided STEM with more than 60 hours of labor. The partnership proved to be such an overwhelming success that Clawges plans to return with her group in the fall. 

Clawges said despite living down the road from the Esther Yanai Preserve, she wasn’t aware of its existence. She noted that both she and the volunteers were amazed to discover Moorestown had these beautifully preserved spaces. Now that it’s on her radar, Clawges plans to utilize the spaces from here on out.

Pensiero said that’s a common theme when he’s speaking with people:  Many Moorestown residents aren’t aware of these spaces and are shocked to learn they exist. 

Pensiero wants to see to it that the spaces are continuously accessible for residents. In the past, he’s heard feedback from residents that South Valley Woods is too overgrown to explore, so he’s eager to keep the paths clear. 

Pensiero also reached out to Moorestown’s Parks and Recreation Department and learned local boy scouts were in need of service projects to earn their Eagle ranks. Pensiero eagerly jumped at the opportunity to have the scouts build bridges and walkways, so residents can cross streams without issue.

“I want people to get out there and enjoy [the open spaces] and make it easier for them to get around,” he said. 

Next up on Pensiero’s agenda is combating the invasive Japanese stiltgrass that’s taking over both Esther Yanai Preserve and South Valley Woods. At Esther Yanai, current estimates indicate nearly one-fourth of the site’s 34 acres are covered in stiltgrass. Due to its low food value, animals do not feed on the grass, and it can quickly form a “monoculture” that inhibits other wildlife from growing in the area. 

On Aug. 8, STEM plans to host an event targeting the stiltgrass at Esther Yanai. He said the  plan is to cut a 20-to-30-foot swath across the entire property. Over the coming years, that swath will be continuously expanded,  with the goal of eradicating the stiltgrass, improving the habitat and thereby allowing native plants the opportunity to reestablish their communities.

Anyone can join the Aug. 8 event and all weed whackers and hand pullers are welcome. Contact Mark Pensiero at (856) 235 – 0171 or via email at markpensiero99@gmail.com

To learn more about STEM, visit www.stemonline.org