Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hidden gem in Somerset County

If you've ever driven down Amwell Road in Franklin, you may have noticed an old arch above a steep driveway heading back into a clearing. Or you may not have noticed it, considering the arch is almost covered by vegetation throughout most of the year. At the top of that driveway is a small house and a handful of trailheads that lead into the William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest is one of the last tracts of virgin (uncut) forest remaining in the mid-Atlantic region. It is also one of the only uncut and unburned White Oak and American Beech forests remaining in the entire country. The area is listed as a Natural landmark with the National Park Service.

Rutgers University currently owns and looks after the forest. The small house at the top of the driveway is a base for graduate students and faculty to do field work in the forest and surrounding areas. The tale of how Rutgers came to own the property and where the land originated is quite interesting, and can be read here: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~hmforest/

There is currently a "no management" policy with regards to the forest. This means that only fallen trees can be removed from paths. Nothing else can be done in the forest. Nothing can be removed, hunted, harvested, or otherwise disturbed. In theory this is a great idea; keep this virgin forest clean and untouched by man. Unfortunately, the reality is that the forest has been disturbed by man in many different ways. The farmland surrounding the forest gives wind and storms the chance to knock down older trees, and while a buffer of newer forest protects the old-growth parcel to a certain degree, these edge effects still creep in. White-tailed deer are a major pest, and with no natural predators left in the area, they are free to graze on any new saplings trying to grow. This means that when a tree does fall, instead of native trees reaching maturity and filling the gap, deer eat them and allow them to be replaced by Ailanthus (also known as Tree of Heaven). Ailanthus is a fast-growing and resourceful non-native species that aggressively occupies the areas where oak, maple, and many other native species try to grow. The forest is home to many non-native or "invasive" species, such as Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium), Japanese Barberry (Berberis), Multiflora Rose, and a slew of others. However these plants and animals are free to reign supreme, often wreaking havoc on the ecology of the forest. Many would be able to overcome attempts to quell them, while others may succumb to these efforts. There are many people currently fighting for the management policy to be altered; whether it will be or not remains to be seen.

The forest and the land surrounding it is a truly wonderful place. Farm fields on the edge are mowed at certain intervals so researchers can study succession in that type of ecosystem. Visitors can follow along and see the variety of plants, insects, and birds that inhabit the different stages of succession. There has been a vast quantity of research conducted here, and it is easy to see why. The ecology of the region comes alive as you pass through the different habitats, finally entering the old-growth, uncut forest.

Hutcheson Memorial Forest is usually NOT open to the public, however tours run every few weekends and those are open to anyone. They are guided by faculty and graduate students, all of whom are very knowledgeable in their field of study. Each walk is unique and will offer different information, opportunities, and personalities. One walk may focus on plant ecology and invasive species while another may be a leisurely bird-watching trip. The area offers a wide variety of bird life, including a relatively large number of sparrow species during fall migration. The spring is also a great time to visit, and there are almost always birding tours offered during May.

Check out the tour schedule online and try and make your way to one or more of the walks. Working your way through this unique and interesting ecosystem with a knowledgeable guide is always a rewarding and fun way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Tour Schedule: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~hmforest/TourSchedule.htm

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