A New Jersey Primeval Wood
by Mary Jasch
What does it mean to save a Primeval Forest when the nature of wild is succession and management is a forbidden word?
Hutcheson Memorial Forest, a 65-acre tract of old growth forest in Franklin Township, Somerset County, is a conundrum in time and purpose. It lies in limbo between a no-management policy mandated to preserve the forest's character and influences brought by suburbia that force change.
The forest is the last remaining patch of virgin woodland in New Jersey and is one of the last uncut, unburned White Oak-American Beech forests in the entire U.S.A. It is listed in the National Park Service Registry of Natural Landmarks.
The forest, a.k.a. Mettler's Woods, is part of a 525-acre parcel of land owned by Rutgers University that is comprised of abandoned farm fields, young forest, a stream, ecology research plots, farmland and the remnant forest.
Since the 1700s the Mettler family of Dutch settlers and their descendents owned the forest. In the 1950s, core samples taken on old oaks and beech knocked down by a hurricane showed that many trees were over 350 years old. Impressed by timber quality, a logging company offered to purchase the woods, but in 1955, the Citizen's Committee for the Preservation of Mettler's Woods and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners purchased 150 acres that included the virgin forest and donated it to Rutgers. In exchange they ordered that the deed contain two conditions: 1) there would be a "no management" policy in the old growth forest, with only one trail allowed to be kept open, and 2) the forest would be named after one of the union's dead presidents.
Hutcheson Memorial Forest (HMF) was born, and has been maintained in a natural state--protected from fire with all blowdowns left where they fall. Only those portions of fallen trees that lay across the foot path are removed. These conditions are strictly respected.
But just a few years ago, heavy equipment of adjacent farms caused erosion that buried small plants and seeds necessary for forest regeneration and on silt-covered slopes, a monoculture of garlic mustard replaced a myriad of wild flowers. Agricultural nitrates and phosphates washed downslope in high concentrations, causing algae blooms that lowered oxygen in the soil and stream, killing plants, fish and forest critters. These chemicals changed the soil and what subsequently grew.
To make matters worse, increased housing along the forest's perimeter had caused an increase in deer population that found any regenerating native plants, especially dogwood and viburnum, more palatable than invasives like Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and Japanese barberry.
One enters this sacred wood on paths past abandoned farm fields--sites of the country's longest running "Small Succession” studies begun in 1958 and still ongoing. Now just two old fields are in forbs. A moss-covered path as pretty as any garden leads through the other eight fields, woody with Eastern red cedar of varying ages.
I admire the low, thick limbs of a white oak that jut out over the trail. White oak is the only tree species able to grow heavy horizontal limbs because resin fills the old vascular tissue, providing structure and support. That's why it's used for wine barrels. Other canopy trees have branches that grow straight up, from high up on their trunks.
Most of the old trees in the woods are dying. "Natural Selection" for trees does not include longevity, says a forest steward. There's not much reason for a tree species to evolve to live past a few hundred years. They usually die by fire or blowdown.
I feel sadness walking through this old patch of woods, so precious its preservation was written in stone. The demand that it remains "preserved"--untouched--promotes its decline. Over time, the rules that vow to protect it may destroy it.
Luckily, management works from outside the forest as Rutgers adds more open space to buffer the primal forest and a fence acquired with alumnae donations. The additional land also provides green corridors to other spaces, allowing the migration of deer, box turtles and other wildlife between havens. The preserve bordering HMF totals over 525 acres.
These days, caretakers are removing invasives. Gone is barberry, and they’re working on Japanese stilt grass that covers the skinny footpath and under the ancient trees. A fungus is taking care of multiflora rose.
"The primary function of the property is preservation of an old-growth forest and open space in general,” says a caretaker. “But it's also a research facility, and anyone interested in doing outdoor research is welcome here.”
Indeed. Every year a complete inventory of the forest's fungi is taken as are bird population studies and visiting scientists engage in other research.
Recently, dendrochronology researchers from the Tree Ring Institute are coring white oaks to study East Coast climate change and the old growth forest’s history. Tree rings tell many stories – of age, temperature, climate, how they grow and forest history. Researchers look for trees that are growing in sensitive areas, for the stories that trees tell depend on their location. Temperature story is found at high elevations or high latitude. Trees most sensitive to drought are in the U.S. Southwest.
Nicole Davi, Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York, is focusing on “how has the climate changed over the past several 100 years, how the trees are responding to climate of the past several decades, and what is the relationship of these trees to large scale modes of climate like ENSO.”
Davi chose to study the trees in HMF because they are sensitive to drought. She is building on the work of Dr. Ed Cook who cored the trees in 1982 and found 200, 300-year old trees and used them as part of the North American Drought Atlas.
Davi is also looking at climate change and tree rings offer a long term perspective of 400 years versus 100-year recorded data. She is looking at cycles of drought and wetness. In the mid 1960s, the East Coast was very dry and tree rings show the 100-year drought. Says Davi: “We found the ‘60s drought to be one of the most severe droughts. The rings are very narrow. That these trees are more sensitive to drought in New Jersey is an anomaly.”
One result of Davi’s work: Over the past 10 years or so, the trees have been growing quite fast. But the question is: Does it have to do with blowdown (a blowdown leaves a forest gap with more sunlight) or is it related to climate?
Dan Druckenbrod, Assistant Professor, Environmental Science, Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ, focuses on forest ecology and forest history. “We are hoping to use the old trees to tell us the history of the woods.”
Druckenbrod is coring white oak because they are typically longer lived and slower growing. Many date back to the late 1600s and he wants to get many tree ring records before they die. (Last winter there were lots of blowdowns.)
“It was hard to hit center on them because a tree, as it grows, leans one way or another. A tall, leaning hardwood tree has tension-wood on the upslope side resulting in an asymmetrical tree with an off-center biological center,” says Druckenbrod.
1. People. Once born, they are likely to live to the maximum life span (highest survivorship)
2. Birds. The probability of death is constant.
3. Trees. Many die as seedlings but those that make it to the canopy can live a long life. (lowest survivorship)
There are still treasures to behold in this primal forest--regeneration of elephant-skinned American beech by root sprouts. I see in the muddy lowland along Spooky Brook, big bird tracks, some with a long stroke after them, followed by the fingers of wings--wild turkey taking off!
Along the path, rise tall, slim trees of persimmon with black alligator bark, black cherry, black oak, and pin and red oaks. Maples are abundant--red, silver, sugar and Norwegian, and wild grape grows everywhere. Some of the black oak trees are 300 years old and 60 feet tall. Black oak over 200 years old are rarely found anywhere.
There are great horned owls and red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, coopers hawk and the sharp-shinned. It was here on a tour led by an ornithologist that I once held a yellow-throated sparrow in my hands. And in early spring, you can walk over the Spooky Brook on an ecologically-correct plastic-wood plank with big chunks removed by teeth-grinding squirrels and see the snow melt caused by skunk cabbage heat.
In summer, the forest looks much like a garden. The fields are covered with wildflowers and the air is filled with bird song. The huge Eastern red cedars look like junipers planted in old English gardens. Paths along the edges are covered in moss, perfect for a wild garden.
Don’t miss this remnant virgin woodland. Rutgers University faculty lead free, guided tours on Sundays throughout the year. Depending on the leader’s expertise and what is flowering, flying, calling or crawling, various aspects of natural history, forest ecology, conservation issues and ecological relationships are pointed out and discussed. No need for reservations.
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published September 13, 2013