Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, members of Save the Environment of Moorestown (STEM) were already hard at work preserving the township’s open spaces. But with more people eager to explore the great outdoors than ever, STEM members continue to expand their efforts to make Moorestown’s open spaces more accessible to the public.
Mark Pensiero, president of STEM, said the group is even receiving some help. STEM has joined forces with the Moorestown Department of Parks and Recreation, and together, they’re eager to not only maintain the untouched pieces of land but spread the word about them.
STEM completed a slew of projects at Esther Yanai Preserve. During the summer, First United Methodist Church of Moorestown’s youth group joined forces with STEM and pulled out invasive species, cleared blocked trails and laid down bridges at the Esther Yanai Preserve and South Valley Woods.
The improvements haven’t stopped since. In August, 18 people showed up to cut back invasive Japanese stilt grass at the preserve and ultimately cut a 25-foot swath across the property. More recently, a second set of bridges was installed by Moorestown High School student Justin Nicolik as part of his Eagle Scout project.
“These bridges make the entire preserve passable, whereas in the past, it was difficult, if not impossible, to traverse the property, even after a heavy rain,” Pensiero said.
The Department of Parks and Recreation was responsible for sending Nicolik STEM’s way. Theresa Miller, the department’s director, said Parks and Rec is often approached by teens who want to complete a community project in order to earn their Eagle Scout designation. Miller said the plan is to continue to send these teens STEM’s way to see what work the open spaces are in need of.
STEM also purchased and installed a bench honoring Esther and Steve Yanai. The preserve was named after Esther, a founding member of STEM who encouraged the township to preserve the particular piece of property that now bears her name.
“The new bench affords a beautiful vista of Swede’s Run, the stream that borders the western border of the property,” Pensiero noted.
Steve Yanai, Esther’s husband, also made a $25,000 donation that allowed for the addition of a parking lot on the property. Previously, there was parking for only a car or two at the site, making it largely inaccessible to the public.
With all of the recent improvements to both Esther Yanai Preserve and South Valley Woods, Pensiero reached out to Miller to talk about developing hikes and other programs to introduce Moorestown residents to the spaces.
Pensiero will lead a hike of South Valley Woods on Jan. 9. A local bird watcher, Pensiero’s tour will have attendees looking for wintering bird species and will point out some of the interesting flora found in the woods.
Miller said while Parks and Rec has worked with STEM on occasion in the past, together they’re putting their heads together to discuss ways to get the open spaces on residents’ radar and hope to develop more programming in the future.
“I don’t think people are as aware as they could be,” Miller said. “We have a lot of beautiful open spaces. They’re gems in our community. We really want to get more people involved.”