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Snatching Open Space from the Jaws of Development

Corrections or additions?

These articles by Carolyn Foote Edelmann and Nicole Plett were

prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

rights reserved.

Celebrating Nature, Next Door

What I require of nature is limitlessness. The more

hours I expend in corporate halls, the more urgent this need. What

continues to amaze me about New Jersey is that limitlessness is still

within reach — requiring very little investment of time or

driving;

and often none of money.

Plainsboro Preserve is one example of New Jersey at its best —

long, generous trails (five miles at last count) through 630 acres

of woods, where nothing manmade is encountered for great swathes of

time. Take yourself over there on any weekend, in any season, even

at lunch hour. You may share your walk with a fellow explorer or two,

but you will not feel crowded. Be sure you’re well shod, no matter

the season, because this is not only woodland, but can approach

wetland.

Trails are clear, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Even so, given

this year’s record snows, it could be mud-time for some time to come.

Whatever the conditions, this place is worthy of the journey.

To reach the Preserve from Route 1 north, take Scudder’s Mill Road.

Turn left onto Dey Road (north, towards Cranbury). Go to Scott’s

Corner

Road signal and turn left. Scott’s Corner Road will take you past

Plainsboro Park, then on to Plainsboro Preserve, our new regional

haven. Although there is industrial history here, it already seems

remote. Nature has been allowed to renew herself, thanks to

cooperation

among the County of Middlesex, the Township of Plainsboro, and the

New Jersey Audubon Society.

The Preserve’s not yet completed Nature and Education Center rises

on the eastern shore of broad McCormack Lake. As yet, it gives off

a sense of belonging and not belonging. Until its official opening,

anticipated for late April, the preserve’s staff — Brian

Vernachio,

sanctuary director, and Tara Miller, teacher-naturalist — are

housed in a temporary trailer. Visitors can stop in here for trail

maps between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. There is also a limited

inventory of books and birdseed along with schedules and information

on programs and volunteer opportunities.

But one does not enter this preserve for bricks and mortar, not even

when handsomely reflected in a bright blue lake. One goes for woods,

birds, and the trails — narrow and wide; circuitous and straight;

blazed Crayola red and yellow. Recent snow offers a mosaic of deer

hooves, rabbit feet, and the long straight signatures of cross-country

skis. No bike tire marks and no pet paws: bikes and pets are not

welcome.

One goes to the Plainsboro Preserve to escape the sounds and smells

of "civilization." There could well be a placard at the gate

reading, "Abandon fumes, all ye who enter here." Here is a

place to take deep cleansing breaths of undiminished air. Park in

the muddy, rutted lot more accustomed to construction vehicles than

nature buffs. Thread carefully between puddles and gate. Prepare to

be renewed.

On a recent outing, we were escorted along Dey Road by a red-tailed

hawk, high and saucy above empty fields. At the preserve’s parking

area, a rare American kestrel welcomed us. Formerly known as

"Sparrow

Hawk," this vivid jay-sized creature flitted about, as if alert

us to attractions not to be missed. I have little patience with

written

nature descriptions, preferring experience. But there is an

informative

kiosk with guidelines to best Preserve use.

We strode; we tromped. Occasionally certain drifts that topped our

boots caused us to lift our legs in march step. It was like being

children, with no adults about to watch our flounderings. There was

added electricity from being out in wind and weather that tends to

keep people by the fire, book in hand.

Woods abound in this young preserve, although the trees

are slender and not yet mature. Here and there an evocative large

trunk leads to musings upon ancient times. A 1982 archaeological dig

on nearby Scudders Mill Road revealed artifacts of a permanent

settlement

during the late archaic period. Carbon dating pointed to 3,700 years

ago. Knives, charred nuts, hammers, fish spears, and projectile points

were tucked in among evidence of 25-foot-long oval structures. Finds

of this nature are rare. They are links to the Unami, a tribe of

Lenape

Indians; who, in turn, are proud members of the larger group, the

Delaware. We run into their story, their sacred lands, all along the

D&R Towpath, right down into Trenton.

Moving ahead to the 1600s, lands near the Plainsboro Preserve were

in Dutch hands. They had moved, then as now, from New Amsterdam, now

christened New York City. English also settled here. Farming was

paramount

with early settlers, fertile soil still being a hallmark of the

region.

The Plainsboro Historical Society reports, "the rest of the

Township

was mostly potato and general cropland, with a fertility level ranked

with the best in eastern America." This was the main thrust of

Plainsboro, until April 14, 1969. This date marked the ascendance

of Harold Britton and Lincoln Properties: developers of Fox Run, Deer

Creek, Ravens Crest, etc. — named as ever for critters

more-or-less

displaced.

Trail maps are not required reading at the Plainsboro Preserve,

because

trails are so clearly marked; they follow the gentle contours around

the 50-acre McCormack Lake. Once upon a time, this body of water was

McCormack Sandpit; now it is the centerpiece of the Preserve. On a

recent chilly walk, the lake was nearly frozen solid. This had

happened

rapidly enough that the entire surface remained sapphire blue rather

than the gray-white of the rest of winter’s palette.

The vivid color decoyed hundreds of passing geese, frantic for open

water. From on high, they would spot the bright blue and start a

descending

circle. Fanning wide wings, they would drop landing gear, only to

take off abruptly at the very last minute. What looked to be open

from aloft was dazzling ice, hard as concrete. What little free water

existed was already jammed with other birds.

In other seasons this lake can be empty and cerulean as Yellowstone’s

Morning Glory Pool. In fall it is studded so densely with waterfowl

that you cannot glimpse the autumn reflections. Frequently, you can

focus on a dapper band of black and white buffleheads. And be reminded

that the last two times you encountered these rare ducks were at New

Jersey’s opposite poles — Sandy Hook and Cape May. You might be

there when mergansers are meandering. Some report osprey, even a

barnacle

goose. You never know what gifts await at any hour, in any season.

The contours of the Preserve are gentle and soothing to body and

spirit.

Although one is never far enough from trains around here, all other

man-made sounds are mercifully muted. This walk might take an hour

of your time, if you drag your feet. Or longer, if you’re determined,

as we were, to decide whether there might be a tree sparrow in among

the white-throats. If you’re very lucky, winter’s sprightly

yellow-rumped

warblers will flash their eponymous coins at you. They seem actually

to enjoy humans — half bouncing, half flying just ahead of you,

an honor guard just out of reach. Their voices are merry,

light-hearted

among the empty trees. Slate-colored juncoes will add their sooty

tones and snappy white accessories, especially to the winter scene.

You can turn your attention fruitfully to Plainsboro

Preserve’s vegetation. Stately water birch curls at lake edge. You

can check out the season’s bayberry crop. This fragrant waxy fruit

provides prime migration fuel, especially for warblers. You will be

scolded by squirrels; announced by crows and jays. You will study

the gray and coralline tufted titmouse; hear the thunder of unseen

woodpeckers contrast with the silence of a nuthatch, bobbing

determinedly

down a dark wet trunk. Reports of river otter and coyote intrigue

— I have yet to be blessed with the sight of these.

The Preserve hosts 10 rare or threatened plant species. For one, —

thought to have been extirpated in New Jersey — this is its only

home: the slender milfoil. Other rare residents are bladderworts,

southern twayblade orchid, and soapwort gentian.

The Preserve’s beech wood can be especially alluring in autumn. When

every other species had changed its robe, beeches remained sharply

green, shimmering, evocative of unlikely seasons. In December, the

frilled bark of euonymus shrubs cups light snow. So far as your eye

can see, are trees beyond trees beyond trees. Limitlessness.

You will have to decide between road and trails, especially in winter.

Trails can be oddly snow-free, despite cover in the understory. Downed

brown leaves must hold sufficient warmth to melt flakes. However,

that lake road can thaw and freeze until studded with mini-rinks.

It is always broad, alluring. Follow it west, north, then east onto

a small peninsula. This Florida-shaped spit of land is ideal for

spying

on waterbirds.

The wooded trails are narrower, newer, precisely bordered by downed

saplings. On a December trek, felled boundaries were frosted with

granular snow. In late October and early November, trails are

cushioned

by remnants from whatever trees gave up their leaf-ghosts the night

before. In colors so glorious, you could be walking through a Far

East bazaar, rug merchants flinging samples before you — now

golden,

then rosy, sturdy green-brown, and finally crimson.

Maple carpets sound different from oak and sweetgum — thinner,

crinklier. In late December you walk upon the pink-beige of

prematurely

dropped beech leaves, then among the toastiness of oak. Also early

in dropping this year were sweet gum balls — scattered spiky balls

as dark as cinnamon. Here and there, a short stump trunk embraces

snow, like a kettle awaiting hot maple syrup and a pickle or two,

as in Vermont in March. In the middle of a trail spurts a single male

holly, solely green — no red-berried female in sight.

On the Preserve’s well-maintained trails, blaze marks

are generous (red ones too bloody for my taste). At one trail’s end,

you’ll be moving along at a great clip when sudden orange cones defy

further progress. Beyond the end of the trail and well off official

Preserve property, you may see something very odd: a silver cone,

at least two stories tall, the remnants of a defunct nuclear reactor.

The sight startles. Here one has been away so long from anything

man-made

— eyes, ears, nose, and spirit all treated to the sylvan and the

generous. Borders, strictures, and those unlikely cones — so much

a part of our everyday life — had been forgotten.

Turn and follow new trail blazes, this time marked by honeybee yellow.

A slender doe may erupt into your privacy, unlikely as a unicorn.

She’ll be part shy, part proprietary. You’ll tell her she’s beautiful,

and she will graciously share her domain. Then, eerily silent, despite

crisp leaf-fall, she will process — a young monarch — into

the shadows.

Before you, all across the Preserve’s broad lake, Canada geese beyond

counting serenely defy pursuit by nearby, audible hunters. Overhead,

in winter, snowgeese beyond counting float and murmur. People drive

two hours to Ocean County refuges to observe these white and black

beauties. From my computer at work on College Road East, I am

tantalized

daily by treetops and the rising birds of the Plainsboro Preserve.

Its trails are near enough to any number of corporate sites to permit

lunchtime exploration. Suitably shod, you are guaranteed to return

to your desk as refreshed as if you had traveled many miles.

— Carolyn Foote Edelman

Plainsboro Preserve, 80 Scotts Corner Road, Plainsboro,

609-897-9400.

Building open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays

and holidays). Trails open sunrise to sunset (currently 7 a.m. to

4:30 p.m.), seven days. Free. Website:

www.njaudubon.org/Centers/Plainsboro/.

Friends of the Plainsboro Preserve site: www.plainsboro.com/fopp/

Top Of Page
Upcoming Events

Whoo’s There? Stories about owls plus a short night hike

to listen to owls in the preserve. Preregister, $8 individual; $20

family. Friday, February 28, 7 p.m.

Youth Birding Club. New Jersey Audubon Society’s club

for ages 12 to 18 takes a field trip. Free. Saturday, March 1,

5 p.m.

Youth Birding Club. Audubon Society’s club for ages 12

to 18. Free. Thursday, March 6, 5 p.m.

Woodcock Wonders. Twilight walk to watch the nuptial

flights

of male woodcock as they woo their female counterparts. Preregister,

$15 non-members. Friday, March 7, 5 p.m.

Tracks, Scats, and Signs. Family program of stories about

animal signs, craft project, and a short hike. Preregister, $8; $20

family. Sunday, March 9, 2 p.m.

Evening with the Stars. Night sky constellations and

Native

American stories. Bring binoculars. Preregister, $8; $20 family.

Friday,

March 28, 7 p.m.

Top Of Page
Snatching Open Space from the Jaws of Development

To some people, a town like Plainsboro defines suburban

sprawl. But in fact the township has been an open space pioneer in

New Jersey, aggressively buying and preserving land for more than

25 years.

Through the vision of Mayor Peter Cantu and the efforts of numerous

regional officials, more than 2,500 contiguous acres of open space,

spanning vast sections of southern Middlesex County, have been

permanently

preserved. The crowning achievement of this vision is the 630-acre

Plainsboro Preserve, which opened in 2000.

The township’s formal efforts to preserve the tract started in the

late 1980s when the township rezoned the site from industrial to

low-density

residential with a cluster provision "with the intent to see as

much of the property as possible there preserved."

The Preserve site, originally purchased in 1897 by the Walker-Gordon

Company for its diary operation and pioneer laboratories, was used

for a gravel mining operation by the McCormack Sand and Gravel

Company,

namesake of the Preserve’s Lake McCormack. Some of the dredged fill

that created the lake went to shore up Meadowlands Stadium in the

swamps of Hackensack in Bergen County. Walker-Gordon milked its last

cow in 1971; McCormack stopped mining the property in the 1970s after

it was no longer able to transport gravel along the railroad line.

Through several years of negotiations, Plainsboro Township was able

to raise $2.9 million for the purchase of 530 acres of preserve

property

from Henry Jeffers, the CEO of Walker Gordon. Another 100 acres at

the front of the site between the preserve and Scotts Corner Road

is still in corn, leased back to farmers for up to 30 years, before

it becomes part the preserve’s management.

Plainsboro Township then struck an agreement with the New Jersey

Audubon

Society to establish trails, manage the preserve, and run the

Environmental

and Education Center — funded by private donations — that

is currently being built on the property. The township’s eventual

goal is to build the preserve to 1,000 acres.

Audubon’s Brian Vernachio, who manages the site,

explains

that the Preserve is just that: A place of passive recreation and

nature study. "The Preserve is deed restricted and dedicated to

nature study," he explains. "Hiking, snowshoeing,

cross-country

skiing, bird watching, photography, and other passive enjoyments are

all permitted." Picnicking is not allowed; the park has a

"carry

in and carry out" trash policy. Dogs and bicycles are not welcome

and there is no swimming or fishing in the lake.

More troublesome than the establishment of trails has been the

6,500-square-foot

Plainsboro Preserve Environmental and Education Center, designed by

Manders and Merighi Associates of Vineland, but not yet completed.

The firm also designed the popular Cape May Bird Observatory Center

for Research and Education, owned by the New Jersey Audubon Society.

The new Plainsboro center is sited on the edge of 50-acre McCormack

Lake, which is the centerpiece of the site. Groundbeaking took place

September, 2001, in the hope the building would be completed around

April, 2002.

The building’s original cost was estimated between $850,000 and $1

million, but that sum became moot when the original contractor went

out of business. When the project’s bonding company brought in a new

contractor, structural flaws in the original work were discovered

that have recently been corrected. The hope is that the center will

enjoy its grand opening sometime in late April.

The Environmental and Education Center will house a large amphitheater

designed for classes and seminars. A striking design feature is an

18-by-30-foot, two-story glass window that offers a dramatic view

of the lake. Also offered will be interactive displays on the ecology

and natural history of the area, a reference library, a small

bookstore,

and an "Under the Pond" experience room. For now, Vernachio,

and Tara Miller, the center’s teacher-naturalist, are at the Preserve

in a temporary home until the building is complete.

Vernachio, 35, grew up in the Pine Barrens in Ocean County, and

developed

an interest in natural history at an early age. The oldest of three

brothers, he enjoyed fishing and hunting with his parents. "Every

Sunday we’d take a ride down to the Brigantine to look at the ducks.

We’d spend a lot of time out in the woods," he says. He earned

his BS in environmental studies from Richard Stockton College in 1992.

Vernachio’s work in the environment began while he was still in his

teens. "While I was going to school I worked for Cattus Island

County Park, Ocean County Park Environmental Education Center. My

internship was at Cape May as a hawk watcher. Through my volunteer

work and internship I was able to get some contract work."

His first full-time job was at Rancocas Nature Center in Mount Holly.

He came to the Plainsboro Preserve at the beginning of New Jersey

Audubon Society’s involvement. He now lives in Ocean County, not far

from where he grew up. He and his wife have two young children.

Over the course of 20 years working with the environment, Vernachio

says although awareness of New Jersey’s recreation opportunities has

grown, many people are still unaware of the numerous opportunities

that exist. "The Audubon Society and my job is to help get people

connected with their environment, here in their own back yard, and

let them know they’re a part of this."

— Nicole Plett


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