Just minutes away, escape into the wilderness

Seton Hall is located in one of the most urban, most densely populated and most built up areas of the country. And yet, just a few minutes away from campus, is a genuine wilderness.

The South Mountain Reservation sprawls over 2,100 acres of rolling hills and roaring rivers that seem far removed from the gritty image of Essex County, N.J. It is crisscrossed with leafy paths and hiking trails, including one that leads to the waterfall at Hemlock Falls. From the overlook at Washington Rock, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of New York City and Staten Island.

It’s tempting to think of wilderness as being untouched, but the reality is that keeping a place like the South Mountain Reservation wild takes a lot of work. Within the past decade the South Mountain Conservancy, a non-profit organization, has volunteered tirelessly to protect the woods. Seton Hall students also play an active role at the Reservation by interning through the Environmental Studies program.

Seton Hall alumni Christopher Nascone, ‘14, interned at the reservation in the main deer exclosure where he removed invasive plant species and replaced them with native plants. Nascone also teamed up with ecologist Dr. Michael van Clef to track the deer population in the reservation Nascone reflects on his experience interning at South Mountain Reservation and those who worked alongside him.

“Everyone from board members to volunteers were hard-working, as friendly as can be,” he said. “They had a genuine love for the reservation and what it represents.”

The Reservation was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who famously put together the plan for New York City’s Central Park. The citizen-oriented South Mountain Conservancy, led by Chairman Dennis Percher, works to adhere to Olmstead’s vision in the upkeep of the area. The Conservancy holds volunteer opportunities open to the public to preserve native plant species and to prevent invasive plant species from growing.

“Within the past year, community residents came out about 600 times in the course of the year between two to four plus hours each time,” Percher said.

Other volunteer efforts include garbage clean-up, trail keeper teams, forest regeneration and fallen tree removal projects. Recognizing the unique experience South Mountain Reservation has to offer due to its size, Percher separates the reservation apart from other county parks.

“The size of the reservation allows a measure of isolation in its valley that is not replicated in the other areas,” Percher said. “You would have to go much further from the county to get this type of experience for hiking and bird watching.”

An active participant with the South Mountain Conservancy is Judith Stark, co-director of Seton Hall’s Environmental Studies Program and doctor of philosophy.

“It is a great learning experience to work with local organizations in your community,” Dr. Stark said. According to Dr. Stark, the South Mountain Conservancy addresses the problem of the white-tailed deer overgrazing native plant species in the reservation. Fifty exclosures have been built in the reservation to prevent the deer from entering and eating native plant species. Dr. Stark said the largest exclosure covers 14 acres and that, once fully grown, the native plant species are brought and scattered outside the exclosure. In order to further prevent overgrazing, an organized deer hunt by trained sharp-shooters takes place at the beginning of each calendar and the venison is donated to local food banks.

With the pressing concern of the overgrazing of native plant species and the rapid growth of invasive plant species, Dr. Stark seeks to inform students about how this problem affects the environment. It is important to clear out invasive species from taking over native species as a means of preserving biodiversity.

“People are unaware until they are informed that invasive plant species limits biodiversity,” Dr. Stark said.

Dr. Stark is passionate about preserving the native species in South Mountain Reservation and has been heavily involved in the environmental movement for over 30 years. As Co-director of Environment Studies, Dr. Stark brings students to the reservation.

Apart from its volunteer efforts, the South Mountain Conservancy helps fund the Wildflower Sculpture Park. According to Percher, the Conservancy also draws in over 100 people for the Mayapple Trail Runs race in late May. For younger generations, children age five to 10, can enjoy the South Mountain Reservation Family Campout for an overnight camping experience.

Leah Carton can be reached at leah.carton@student.shu.edu.

Author: Staff Writer

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