By Barbara Heskins-Davis, The Land Conservancy
South Branch Preserve totals 405 acres in Mt. Olive Township is owned and managed by The Land Conservancy of New Jersey for water quality protection and watershed management. It serves as an exciting example of how public and private organizations, with different interests and resources, can preserve and manage lands of regional and statewide significance. The Preserve is a demonstration project for restoring a damaged ecosystem to a productive forested watershed protecting the water supply source of more than one and a half million New Jersey residents. Located near the headwaters of the South Branch of the Raritan River at Budd Lake, this is the largest river basin located entirely within the state New of New Jersey and is one of its most critical water supply sources.
Forest Restoration, Organic Farming, Community Gardening, Pollinator Habitat
In 2011 The Land Conservancy of New Jersey preserved 208 acres at the corner of Wolfe Road and Route 46 in Mt. Olive Township (which includes three-quarters of a mile of South Branch) with the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, Mt. Olive Township, Morris County, and New Jersey. Immediately upon purchasing this property, The Land Conservancy set upon implementing a Management Plan that had a three pronged approach to land stewardship: transitioning to organic farming, establishing a community garden for local residents, and restoring the forest in the most sensitive riparian areas of the River to ensure permanence to the watershed and its ecosystem.
Twelve agricultural fields dotted the landscape, the South Branch of the Raritan River wound its way through the property, and forested land anchored the property. The fields had been used for corn and slowly the soil was being stripped of its nutrients. In partnership with the experts at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, funding was received to begin the process of transitioning to organic farming on 8 of the fields. In the spring of 2012 the fields were tilled and replanted with organic clover and oats in anticipation of ongoing organic farming operations. These plants restored the nutritive value of the soils and prepare the land for organic farming, all to be conducted in river-friendly practices.
For the 4 fields wrapped by the riparian corridor of the South Branch of the Raritan River, a plan was developed to restore the native forest and remove invasive species, to ensure enhanced watershed protection. Funded through the United States Forest Service and National Forest Foundation, a deer exclosure fence was installed and a program for replanting native trees and shrubs on the former corn fields was established. In order to prepare the site for planting, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the fields were tilled and replanted with native warm season grasses in the spring.
The forest restoration project for the Preserve was a three-year phased planting plan. In 2013, 1,740 trees and shrubs were planted in first of the four fields (totaling seven acres). In 2014, 4,685 were planted in the remaining three fields (totaling 27 acres). The harshness of the winter, deep snow pack, and girdling of the trees, led to a final phase of planting in 2015 where the first field (seven acres) was replanted with 760 trees and shrubs. A total of 7,185 trees and shrubs have been planted at the Preserve. The Land Conservancy, with support from its corporate volunteers, wrapped 815 trees in a protective covering over the past two years, greatly diminishing the risk of girdling by rodents.
Site plan for South Branch Preserve, Mount Olive, New Jersey