Conservation groups secure federal watershed protection grant

Program to complement state efforts in forests, on private land

New Jersey once had 100,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar in its portion of the Delaware River Watershed. Thanks to conservation efforts, 40,000 acres are now present.

An overabundance of white-tailed deer, severe wildfires and man-made changes to plant and forest communities were cited by advocates as reasons for the white cedar decline over the years.

Help has come in the form of a $94,823 grant from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of Interior. Announced by New Jersey Audubon on Sept. 13, the funds will support restoration and management efforts in the watershed.

The grant supplements a project sought by New Jersey Audubon, a nonprofit and independent conservation organization, to work with landowners in the Rancocas Creek and Maurice River watersheds who have a stewardship plan through the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Property owners can join the plan if they have at least five acres of forest on the property and the DEP handles site management. Those without stewardship on the property will later be contacted by New Jersey Audubon to gauge their interest in the program.

The state started a program to restore 10,000 acres of cedar on state-owned property. New Jersey Audubon will address the needs on private and otherwise public areas (county- or municipal-owned properties).

Funding for the project to improve the habitat and cleanliness of water that 13 million residents receive was secured by the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, according to its director, Sandra Meola. The nonprofit raises public and lawmaker awareness of the Delaware River and its landscape.

Atlantic white cedar has several purposes for the watershed, specifically the Rancocas Creek Watershed covering parts of Burlington, Camden and Ocean counties, Stewardship Project Director Kristen Meistrell explained.

“Cedar swamps help to purify water by filtering out pollutants and can help mitigate flood damage by curbing flood waters,” she added. “It can also act as a natural fire break, so with us being in the Pine Barrens, fire is critical and necessary. But they can help with that natural fire break when wildfires do occur.”

Other white cedar effects include nourishment for rare butterfly species like Hessel’s hairstreak and swamp pink (helonias bullata), a threatened plant in wetlands studied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department.

Intrusive harvesting of the cedar for ship building and rising sea levels threatened the population of Atlantic white cedars, as the species declined quicker than it could regenerate. Conversion of protected land to human use and residential and commercial properties were cited by New Jersey Audubon as reasons for quicker declines.

The plan is to control undesirable vegetation near tree roots and hardwood species like red maples seen in forests. Existing trees will be thinned to promote sunlight and growth for cedars, Stewardship Technician Danielle Bara noted.

White-tailed deer will be curbed with strategically placed fencing on smaller cedar sites to keep them away while trees grow to more stable heights.

The site at Pakim Pond in the Brendan T. Byrne Forest was cited by advocates for its Atlantic white cedar swamps and a red maple tree growing between cedars.

“The trees themselves are very well (healthy); it’s just that we’re not seeing regeneration, new growth or expanding the acreage that we do have,” Bara emphasized. “It’s just declining. When the adult trees die, we’re not seeing new ones take their place.”

Supplemental planting may be done to regenerate newer trees in forests and on private property, but not every homeowner can plant seedlings.

Residents in a wetland who have rich soil and adequate sunlight can help produce a healthy evergreen. Shore areas were deemed harmful to  seedlings because they can’t grow in saltwater and rising sea levels from storm surges or other natural disasters caused ghost forests in the past.

Installing water-efficient appliances and keeping native plants are  suggested as ways to reduce the amount of flooding a property may have, according to Meistrell. Another way is to exchange some impervious surfaces like driveways or sidewalks for natural options like grassy paver driveways that promote higher surface flow and lesser runoff.

To learn about the project, visit NJAudubon.org.