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ecological landscape architecture gene huntington nj tewksbury land trust

A New Landscape Architecture

by Mary Jasch

Last summer, the American Society of Landscape Architects launched a nationwide campaign to bring the business of landscape architecture to the public eye. Landscape architects stood at the gates of their projects, and those of long-gone, revered colleagues, across the country with signage and information, ready to talk turkey about what they actually do.

One was Gene Huntington, self-proclaimed ecological landscape architect and principal of StewardGreen, troubadour and steward of the land.

Huntington wasn’t stationed in front of a commercial building, park or elaborate home. He stood beside a dirt road that leads uphill into 33-acres of woods and meadows owned by the Tewksbury Land Trust in central New Jersey. On this land, Fox Hill Preserve, he has done it all: a Master Plan complete with analyses of flora and fauna, the Land Trust’s goals and options to attain them, implementation, and monitoring and management.

“I’m a big believer in sustainable systems. I think we have everything we need to exist/co-exist if we just utilize it,” he says. “If we were conservative with water use and have forethought about how we grow things and what we grow, and realize that everything relates to each other, we’d be a much healthier society. I want to use my experience to help others live a more sustainable life.”

In designing landscapes, that can be as simple as using native plants with deep roots that penetrate shale to get water back into the water table. Huntington uses such a system to clean water rather than shed water which creates flooding problems that the East Coast saw this summer and fall.

“Flooding issues will get worse the more we develop with impermeable surfaces like parking lots, roadways, sidewalks. Not that we can’t have those things, we need those things. But we can build them in a way that’s a better system.”

Huntington designs properties for commercial, nonprofits, and land trusts in a state dedicated to acquiring Open Space. In fact, New Jersey will be the first state to be built out in about 30-40 years, he says, with all its land either conserved for open space or developed. His concern is that acquired Open Space sits unmanaged, becoming captive to invasive plants, animal devastation and erosion.

At Fox Hill, plans are in action to meet goals that include trails for horseback riding and hiking, a meadow for people to walk around, putting water back into the water table and a restored stream.

Huntington uses using available resources such as New Jersey’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program and Natural Heritage Program maps, which he used to lay out Tewksbury Township’s forest, woodland, shrubland and herbaceous habitats, and endangered, threatened, and species of special concern. He mapped habitat patches to locate wildlife corridors. The overlap of habitats between client and township properties then helped in getting grants to preserve the property.

“A lot of the information is there; we just pull it together. That’s what landscape architects do a lot – find out information. Why reinvent the wheel if there are programs and people in place and it forms partnerships?” Plus it’s less costly for the client, he admits.

He taps into local resources, such as an environmental commission, trails association and volunteer groups such as Girl Scouts, who planted one of the meadows as a project, and the community itself. He says people want to help but don’t know what to do. “It might be a tree planting or invasive plant removal project, a cleanup in a stream. That pulls the community together and educates them as to what’s being done.”

But is this process unique to ecological landscape architects? Do landscape architects who design residential spaces find out all this stuff?

“It depends on how far the client wants to go, what they’re trying to do. A conventional design doesn’t require all of this or integrate this. I see everything as a habitat. In your backyard I see what are the relationships between insects, the birds, mammals. I see things differently.”

At Fox Hill, he’s seen evidence of, endangered bobcat, threatened Cooper’s Hawk, Bobolink, Barred Owl, Savannah Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow; the endangered Red Shouldered Hawk and bobcat; and Eastern Meadowlark and Great Blue Heron, both species of special concern.

Upland woodland, stream corridor and two meadows comprise Fox Hill’s restoration. Now, one meadow thrives; the other needs more work. The work is ongoing. To Huntington, “monitoring and maintenance” is one of the most important things.

The Huntington Way:

1. MANAGE FAUNA: nuisance, invasive or threatened wildlife. “Most people don’t want to hear it: deer, geese, groundhogs that get into people’s way, rats, feral cats. I try to be delicate with these things when I’m talking to people, but I’m a realist and I say it like it is.”

A deer management program consists of volunteer hunters who either use the meat themselves or pay a butcher and donate it to a food pantry. Goose management programs require federal assistance. “More people accept it now because I think they hadn’t realized it’s part of the whole system. Healthy deer density is 10-15 deer/square mile. Tewksbury has 80/square mile. Deer know where they’re protected so they migrate there and they multiply. So I say to folks, ‘Would you choose one species over another?’ Because if we let deer get out of control, they eat the habitat for other species.

“I’ve seen places where deer have eaten all the understory and they don’t have ground nesting birds like ovenbirds or grouse or other things they should have for a healthy system. Those birds eat ticks. But if you have deer at a healthy level, then those animals flourish as well. You have habitat and plants do better. The water’s cleaner and everything’s better. It’s the whole system.”

At Fox Hill, successful deer management allowed the seed bank to regenerate. Now maple leaf viburnum and spicebush seedlings cover the woodland, promising a native understory once again instead of a deer-decimated forest. Beech is coming back.

“We’re really excited about this. We’re not going to have to spend a lot of money on regenerating and planting. It’s going to come up on its own.”

Last year Huntington took his Fox Hill Preserve plan to Trust for Public Land’s national conference. It was well received, except for some of the deer management. “They don’t want to see the deer killed. But I say if you’re not willing to deal with that issue, then you’re not really ready to move on with proper land management.”

One of Huntington’s favorite projects was the installation of the 2011 Eagle Cam at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, NJ. It enabled researchers and the public to view a pair of nesting endangered Bald Eagles without disturbing them or their habitat.

2. MANAGE FLORA: invasive plants. Steward/Green uses volunteer interns from New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team who work on a property for a week. They clear a specific area of all invasives or a large property of a fast-spreading species.

At Fox Hill, control and eradication of Japanese stiltgrass, Microstigium vimineum, is underway in the ecotone between woodland and meadow. A few ailanthus poke above the US native Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), but he’s not worried about it because he hopes the grass will overtake it or, if not, it’s easy to girdle.

Huntington’s work is never done. He aims to change the current model of replacing removed trees with like kind of similar girth. Instead, he promotes replacing them with young native trees and shrubs and has even convinced planning boards to adopt this practice and change their ordinances. Young natives fare better, cost less, require less maintenance and build a sustainable landscape.

“I think the nursery industry is starting to see this and they’re growing for restoration. I think it’s going to be a new type of landscape architecture. I think that everything is in nature. I think that God gave us everything to survive. You just have to do it.”

3. REGENERATION: planting, drainage disruption to restore wetlands, ecological burnings to destroy cold season grasses in preparation of planting warm season grasses and wild flowers. Huntington uses native plants with deep root systems to help control erosion. Indian grass and andropogon provide six to nine feet of root system that penetrate rock layers, he says. “Little Blue Stem is my favorite. You get three good seasons out of it. It’s beautiful.
“That’s the exciting part for me. That’s where we really get into it and put the design in place. Those three steps are all important but the fourth step is the most important.”

4. MONITORING & MAINTENANCE: “I don’t care if it’s a marriage you’re talking about or buying a house or a car, it’s the monitoring, the maintenance. It’s the follow-through to your commitment. It’s the protection of the first three investment steps.

“You’ve got to make sure your client’s going to go through that fourth step: the maintenance, monitoring and follow-through. The trajectory on that is high in the beginning. It’s tough to keep up with – like a fire in a house. You get a fire burning on your stove. You’ve got to put it out. If you don’t take care of the land, invasive plants will spread like wildfire. Deer come back and everything’s just back to the chaos and then you’ve lost that investment and you haven’t been a good steward of those resources.

“Monitoring, maintenance and follow-through are key.”

So what does Huntington, a once conventional designer for commercial and golf course design/build firms, think about the profession changing?

“I’m not a conventional landscape architect. For the last 10 years I’ve been in the ecological arena. I’m more inspired by that because it’s more sustainable. Things last. We’re building projects for longevity rather than for just somebody to appreciate curb appeal for two to three years. This farm was preserved and now it’s open to the public for their enjoyment. We have equestrian and pedestrian trails and they don’t conflict. We’ve started to restore the woodlands and meadows and an understory that’s coming back.”

Says Kenneth H. Klipstein, Director, Watershed Protection Programs, New Jersey Water Supply Authority: “The Tewksbury Land Trust board was interested in not just acquiring but taking care of the land we have preserved. Gene (Huntington) helped us develop a sustainable stewardship plan for two properties including the former Lance Farm (now Fox Hill Preserve). It is remarkable to see the positive change in the short time since we began implementing the plan at the Lance property. The deer population has been reduced, signs of forest re-generation are evident and a native stream buffer has been established. Following Gene’s ecologically based action plan has proven invaluable to this success.”

Says Huntington: “This is what I get excited about when I see everything starting to come back. I see what’s happening here. I think people will use this property as a place to go to see things that they never see in terms of fauna and flora so I get excited about the regeneration stage.

American Society of Landscape Architects:
The Making of an Ecological Landscape Architect. Read it here.

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published December 08, 2011

Photos to enlarge

Sydney Huntington proudly holds a sign on a trail her father designed and created in restored woodland. Photo courtesy Gene Huntington

Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, native grass. Photo courtesy Gene Huntington

US native Little Bluestem grass, Schizachyrium scoparium, photo courtesy Gene Huntington

US native Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, in flower. Photo by Mary Jasch

Ecological landscape architect Gene Huntington standing in the ecotone at Fox Hill Preserve. Mary Jasch photo

A mat of invasive Japanese stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, covers the ecotone floor. Photo courtesy Gene Huntington

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