A Confluence of Upstream Stewardship
Raritan River Basin
Raritan River Basin
2019 Raritan Headwaters Association, Executive Director
Alison M. Jones
NWNL Executive Director
Also read our 2009 interview with Cindy Ehrenclou
Upper Raritan: One Voice
Governance – Economics – Programs
Erasing Big Disconnects
Seeding Grass Roots Stewardship
A Lower Raritan Viewpoint
Pollution & Groundwater Issues
Clean Water Act – WOTUS
Open Space & Forests
Seminars & Rain Gardens
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.
Ten years after talking with Cindy about the Upper and Lower Raritan Basins, she was Executive Director of the newly-merged Raritan Headwaters Association [RHA]. This second discussion focused on the challenges and rewards of the recently-combined stewardship of the Upper Raritan’s North and South Branches. This is her “Tale of Two Tributaries.”
Recent RHA accomplishments
— Testing and treating of private wells
— Dam removal on the Lamington River
— A “Get the Lead Out” campaign
— 1,700 volunteers removing18 tons of trash
— Cat. 1 designation for 739 miles of waterways
NWNL Hello, Cindy. In our 2009 interview at Rutgers’ First Sustainable Raritan Conference, we talked about the Raritan Watershed being “A Tale of Two Rivers,” and you noted the further disconnect in the Upper Raritan Basin. But now, your former Upper Raritan Watershed Association [URWA] and the former South Branch Watershed Association have merged to create the Raritan Headwaters Association [hereafter, RHA]. What differences between those two basins still exist?
CINDY EHRENCLOU As I’ve always said, the two upper branches of the Raritan geologically and demographically different; and they also have very different land usage. The geology, soils and bedrock are not my area of expertise; but one point is that the Highlands have great fractures and fabulous groundwater supplies.
NWNL What percentage of the either entire basin, or even just the Upper Raritan Basin, does the Highlands represent?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Compared to the North and South Branch Basins, the Highlands covers about 55%; and compared to just the North Branch Basin, the Highlands covers 80%. The ratio of the two combined basins is higher, because the South Branch Basin has a large percent of Piedmont lands.
NWNL Each NWNL case study watershed is unique; but the Raritan is interesting as it takes in so many different regions and compresses them into a very concentrated basin.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes. And below the confluence of the North and South Branches, the Raritan becomes much more suburban/urban. Our Raritan Basin land-use maps use green tones to show nice open space and healthy forest; and then a shocking pink/red to show the more urban, densely populated areas. That map really tells the story of how the river just changes.
NWNL Today’s new RHA addresses very different issues from those found downstream.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes. For instance, we focus on non-point source pollution, versus the downstream focus on point-source pollution.
NWNL The differences within the Upper Raritan, as well as your differences with the Lower Raritan and its legacy of industrial pollution are the reason NWNL is documenting the Raritan. Yet it seems that this “Raritan disconnect” has lessened since 2007 when NWNL began to focus on this watershed!
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes, the divide then was huge.
NWNL Fortunately, in just 10 years, Dr. Judy Shaw, Rutgers Research Associate and Director of the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative, has sewn together the Raritan Basin. I’ve said to her, “Well, you took away the main reason NWNL was documenting this watershed by unifying this whole basin.”
CINDY EHRENCLOU Oh, yes! We really had to make that connection here, because what we do upstream affects so many people downstream. Before, we weren’t relating at all to people in the Lower Raritan.
NWNL You have now merged the North Branch’s URWA with the South Branch Watershed Association. What prompted that change?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We came together to strengthen our voice in policy and become more relevant within the state, since we’d then have a bigger audience. It also made sense because our programs were complementary. Although the North Branch had more land preservation, the South Branch had groundwater monitoring which the North Branch didn’t. To tell a story about water quality we need to know what’s happening underground in the aquifers — especially since 80% of our now-combined residents rely on groundwater from private wells!
The Department of Environmental Protection always designated the South and North Branches as one management area [WMA 8]. So why should we be separated? We shared AmeriCorps ambassadors, water monitors and data. Plus, we would both use the water-monitoring lab. We were already partnering.
NWNL What were the challenges to making RHA a reality?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We had to combine two Boards and two staffs. So, the challenges were mostly organizational. We merged in 2011. It was a year of negotiation, very thoughtful planning, and creating an organization chart and a business plan.
Bill Kibler, former Director of the South Branch Group, is now the RHA Director of Policy. He is far more talented than I am in policy and science. But I was an organizational person, and so it worked out that I became Executive Director. The two of us kind of cooked this up in the backroom; took it to our Executive Committees; had our Boards’ vote on exploration; and then we negotiated using a hired consultant.
NWNL How long did this merger process take and how was it received?
CINDY EHRENCLOU The merger took probably seven years. In the process, people were confused, and both organizations lost their identity. The URWA side just didn’t get this; and regardless of how hard we worked on it, the South Branch side felt like it had been left out because our joined headquarters were put in URWA’s Bedminster facility.
NWNL How did you resolve that issue?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We now also have a Flemington office. As well, our program-impact maps show that we track everything we’re doing. We’re now almost top-heavy in the South Branch area, especially in water monitoring and education. People worried mostly about supporters, volunteers and all who knew their organization. Nobody likes change. And they didn’t like name changes. They didn’t like any of it – but it was the best thing we could do for the basin. Finally, people are finally understanding that together we are the headwaters of this great, big, wonderful Raritan River Basin which is totally contained within New Jersey.
NWNL Does the mission for the RHA address responsibility for certain downstream issues?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Everything we do up here is very important to what’s downstream. We send only clean water downstream. To do this, we watchdog our water quality. While the North Branch has its own issues, we made those needed connections. People downstream are finally comfortable.
NWNL What advice would you give to other watersheds facing similar issues separateness – overlapping somewhat, but not enough?
CINDY EHRENCLOU You need to bring the stakeholders to the table. We talked to elected officials, supporters, clubs and volunteers. We did a feasibility study. We learned to articulate a case statement. This was the right move; and it was important to invite many people to the table, including legacy members and trustees. The outside perception of a merger is a public relations nightmare, especially when you change your name. But face-to-face, it was a very easy case to make.
NWNL What specific differences did you have to resolve with the merger?
CINDY EHRENCLOU The South Branch governance style was different. Their Board met to make decisions, while our Board worked via committee decision.
The Upper Raritan had raised a lot of money in the early 2000’s and had a capital campaign, which gave it a strong foundation. The South Branch was struggling financially; however, their programs were outstanding. I mean, outstanding. Their volunteer corps and people’s passion to protect water was amazing. I always felt a little uncomfortable about our water protection efforts because we were so top-heavy on land use issues. We had a very strong water-monitoring program, but we weren’t tooting our horn on that at all.
Our new Mission had to put water ahead of everything. We are here to protect water. URWA had approached it through land preservation, stewardship, science, education and advocacy. But a watershed organization shouldn’t preserve a piece of land unless it clearly protects a water resource. So, we really had to rethink.
This merger involved creating a strategic plan focused on water. Some donors felt we were here to protect land – to be their land trust and protect their back-porch views. We struggled with that because we internally understood we existed to be a watershed watchdog.
The merger really helped us define ourselves, and reaffirm we were formed as a watershed association. Protecting land is one tool in the toolbox to protect water supplies; and URWA was an accredited land trust. But RHA now puts water out front.
NWNL That’s an amazing benefit to this merger and serves as good advice to other stewardship groups.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes. A strong strategic plan has really helped us. We all need a framework. We mustn’t drift from our Mission, and so a strategic plan helps set appropriate goals and priorities. It helps you articulate your programs and develop business plans around a strategy. It’s too easy to be opportunistic or allow donations with limitations, such as “I’d really like you to monitor hedgehogs,” if it’s not within the scope of your Mission.
At URWA, we focused on science, education and advocacy. We’ve continued to do land preservation and stewardship, and we always will own and steward our property. There’s no walking away from that or our conservation easements. But we needed to engage more kids and adults in the importance of protecting water. We now give them tools and the science that validates our programs and informs policy. That’s what has come out of our strategic plan.
NWNL Did you have outside help forming that strategic plan?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We hired a consultant to lead a brainstorming session with the Board and the staff. We also brought in stakeholders, a freeholder, a local mayor, an old-time supporter, a scientist, and an educator to start the discussion. But honestly, those plans get written internally. Consultants can’t write plans for you. So, we have a public and an internal strategic plan. Our public, 9-page strategic plan (on our website) gives the story. We just keep diving deeper into it.
We also have an internal plan that includes our marketing goals and our organizational chart. This allows us to raise awareness, broaden our audience and such. It is an addendum to the core plan.
NWNL The Raritan has such a disconnect; but it shouldn’t since it is a relatively a small basin. Yet, I grew up here on the North Branch’s Rockaway Stream without ever thinking about where that water went. I’d never seen or thought about the Raritan Bay until I started NWNL.
CINDY EHRENCLOU We don’t think about it. That’s the problem we face with water. We turn on our tap. It looks clear; and thus, So what? Where did it come from? Who knows? Who cares? People who buy land out here don’t know they have a septic system or a well, or where is the stream going. Oh, It doesn’t matter; it’s right here. I’m standing in it and having a good time.
NWNL Now the North and the South Branches are working together; but how do you assess today’s upstream-downstream cooperation between the Upper and Lower Raritan stewards. Has this divide increased or decreased in the last 10 years? Have growing issues like climate change, more people in the basin, and more industry in the basin made working together more or less difficult?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Organizationally, we have far better partnerships since 2009. We are working now with Debbie Mans and the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper. They are great, great partners. We partner with Rutgers University and Dr. Chris Obrupta on green infrastructure programs. Rutgers is our core partner in many ways. We also work well with Heather Fenyk’s group, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership.
NWNL Are there specific projects you are doing with Rutgers?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes. Last year we did a stream cleanup project in New Brunswick with both Heather’s group and Rutgers. We are working on our plastics study with Rutgers; and Chris Obrupta gives lectures for our Watershed Tools for Municipal Leaders program. Much of our green infrastructure projects are coordinated with him — such as building rain barrels, rain gardens and that sort of thing. We also send our folks to be trained at Rutgers; and they send a lot of interns here.
Dan Van Abs, who headed the New Jersey Water Supply and worked at the Highlands, is now a Rutgers professor. We work with him on the Raritan Scholars Program, an internship program for students who do semester-long projects with us. That’s been a really good way to connect and talk about shared issues.
NWNL What projects do you have with Heather Fenyk’s Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We need to work on that partnership and our water-quality-monitoring folks. Recently we listed our affiliations on our website, detailing folks from the Lower Raritan working with folks from the Upper Raritan headwaters and folks with Stony Brook, now a Watershed Institute.
We are all partnering now, and we are members of the same groups. We help each other, and even sit on each other’s Boards. I’m Chair of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and Bill Kibler is on the Highlands Coalition Policy Committee. We all jump to help each other. Yes, partnerships are much stronger than in 2009.
NWNL Does Raritan Headwaters work with downstream partners help you impart the importance of upstream-downstream coordination to local stakeholders?
CINDY EHRENCLOU While our beautiful, forested streams may be very appealing to anglers, that’s totally unrelatable to those dealing with the toxic mess that American Cyanamid left in the Lower Raritan, or to stewards of Raritan Bay studying oyster populations. This headwaters region is a very different part of the basin. But, by hearing the downstream story, we can understand how important headwaters are and why it’s important to be sending clean water downstream.
Sending water downstream is like sending your children out into the world. We’re sending our waters to communities that rely on what we’re protecting upstream. It’s important to us that people here understand we must be sure our water is safe, clean and healthy when it gets to them. We all must work together.
For this reason, we’ve expanded the outreach of our education program. We even go out of our watershed to Newark and Irvington, NJ. Even though they’re not within the Raritan Basin, a lot of our water is sold to those communities. We work with summer kids at Life Camp and anywhere else we can connect, such as joining in a stream cleanup in New Brunswick. We want to help people understand where their water is going to and coming from. We have to make that connection.
NWNL Is there any way you can quantify or generalize about an increase in people understanding that upstream-downstream need from 2009?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Some of it is blind faith, especially around educating children. I’ve been here 25 years now, and I see young people that came to camp when they were wee who are now returning as adults for internships, or a job. There’s far more awareness, even about plastics. There are far more people interested in river-friendly behavior. Our increase in river-friendly residents has improved.
People are also more aware because of what’s going on around the world. Global issues help inform people, and pollution happens in our back yards. People read our plastics study and understand plastic is in each of us and it’s everywhere.
When people pull plastic bags out of a stream, they see visible and tangible pollution. That’s when they feel they can do something. But if you talk about arsenic in the water: “Oh, I don’t get it. What does that mean?” Land preservation is so tangible for people when they can see the view and walk on the land.
Water is not as sexy as land or birds. So, we must constantly make the connection between water and landscapes. Why do we put up kestrel boxes? How relatable is that to someone down in the Lower Raritan? Well people won’t dump chemicals on their land if they suddenly see this is critical habitat for these precious birds. We’re constantly making connections between how our behavior on the land affects water quality.
NWNL What do you think people in the Lower Raritan would most like to see you do for their benefit? Where are they coming from right now?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Well, we have totally different issues. I read about their issues, but I don’t know what they’d say, because I’m not in their world every day. Public access is a bigger deal there. The Lower Raritan is fighting hard to create safe, accessible access to water for swimming, fishing, or just walking along the waterway. Those are their challenges, yet open space and passive recreation is not an issue here. We have preserves where you can walk on 170 acres, but only be 34 miles from Manhattan. Here, that is an exquisite, wonderful asset.
Yet, I’m challenged by all who come here and think it’s Martha Stewart land, saying: “It’s bucolic. What problems could you possibly have?” This makes it hard for us to fundraise. We don’t have a Superfund Site that we can say is killing our children. We must make a more indirect case since we don’t get support from foundations. We get help from those passionate about outdoor sports they enjoy—riding, hunting, fishing. But it’s a different support base, and more demanding. Also, the politics of the landscape is very difficult as it becomes more fragmented.
Lower Raritan issues are more scary and more political; and they include bad land-use behavior. Thus, it’s hard for them to be sympathetic to us; and since we don’t know their issues, it’s hard for us to be sympathetic to them, other than when we meet in Trenton, or network at a Sustainable Raritan Conference, or make meetings happen.
To bridge these differences, we are fortunate to have Christie McDonald as our science director. She grew up in Jersey City; worked in the Meadowlands; published study on urban ecology; and assisted the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper. She’s an excellent connector for us to a more urban community. She is bright; has a Ph.D. from Rutgers; is connected to that academic community; and taught at Newark schools. I’ve been desperate for her connections, so now it’s very exciting.
NWNL Does the Raritan Basin have more industry now than when we chatted in 2009?
CINDY EHRENCLOU No. Pharmaceutical companies are leaving. Merck left, but we still have Pfizer. Johnson & Johnson is not leaving, but there are a lot of empty buildings.
The economy is better, but, oh, there are so many homes for sale. Things have slowed down, and a lot of our citizens are moving to Delaware and Florida. New Jersey is an expensive state. The state and income taxes are terrible here, so we’ve lost a lot of citizens. There’s redevelopment of strip malls and I think development has slowed down. Development has changed too. Big is no longer necessarily better, and most millennials don’t want a 60-acre estate. They don’t want more lawn than they can cut. However, we all fight the septic density rules. Additionally, as Bill Kibler says, “As we lose our shoreline, we’ll all be moving inland.”
NWNL What about your non-point-source pollution? Has that improved or worsened since 2009? Are there new toxins, new concerns?
CINDY EHRENCLOU The new concerns involve emerging contaminants. But fortunately, I think people everywhere are recycling now. Every grocery store takes back their plastic bags. And people are more aware of what they’re putting on their soil. I hear more concern about using fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. The world is waking up.
NWNL I feel that also.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yet, it’s not enough, People behave privately, they may say that they’re doing—you know how that is. People can be lazy.
NWNL A mayor I know from Long Island told me: “People can talk like they’re the greatest environmentalists in the world, yet they’re still out putting all of this chemical on their lawns.”
CINDY EHRENCLOU If you drive around here in the spring with all the Chem Lawn trucks applying lawn chemicals, you can’t breathe. Plus, farmers – God bless them – are also doing horrible things. I work so hard to recycle, but then I visit someone in hospital full of plastic. These hospitals and institutions in general are just not managing plastic. They must figure this out.
NWNL And we can’t even fight the plastic-straw issue. So how are we going to fight the plastic cups?
CINDY EHRENCLOU But in New Jersey we’re getting that done. Gov. Murphy and advocates like Bill Kibler worked to pull back the plastics bill, because it was not enough. But it will be reintroduced very soon in a better bill.
NWNL You weren’t talking about monitoring wells in 2009.
CINDY EHRENCLOU We were not. But I am excited to look now at groundwater. Christie McDonald has done a fabulous groundwater study and trend analysis for us. The South Branch has 30 years of data and has tested wells since 1974. Since 2011, we’ve managed everything digitally, working with Rutgers and Chris Obrupta’s students on data management.
NWNL What contamination are you finding with these tests?
CINDY EHRENCLOU We’re hosting well-test events in 38 municipalities. People come to their town hall, pick up test kits, and bring them back. With this data, we expand the contaminants list and test for other things. We’re testing chloride right now because we’re concerned about road salt. Arsenic is a big deal, particularly in Hunterdon County, where it is in the bedrock. That data encourages residents to find out how safe their drinking water, since it was applied to orchards and can show up anywhere.
Lead in your water can come from a well, from your streets or from lead pipes. We are actively raising awareness about lead in water. We have a new water-quality lab here, so we can do a lot of our own work right here. Public well testing data goes to a certified lab, but we do a lot of our surface-water monitoring in our own lab.
NWNL It seems you’ve made this essential action very accessible.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes, anybody can pick up a kit and then drop it off. Our Flemington well-test office is open five days a week now. It’s a lot to manage; but it’s exciting and important work.
NWNL Do any point-pollution problems remain in the Upper Raritan at this point?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Occasionally. We are very focused on the Hercules mess at the top of the watershed. There are still explosives in the ground up there. So much contamination.
NWNL Can you explain the Hercules problem?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Hercules, in the old days was the Atlas Powder Company, making explosives. It’s a 2,000-acre site in Mt. Arlington and Roxbury. Nobody’s really known what to do with it. It should be a Super-fund Site. Hercules is a big issue we want to study because it’s at the headwaters of the Lamington River.
NWNL Why is it not designated as a Super Fund Site?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Because of politics and the fact that it’s in two different towns. We’ll have a meeting next week with seven stakeholders, including Sandy Urgo, now with the Land Conservancy of New Jersey and former Mayor of Roxbury. We need to understand the history and what’s happened there. In the ‘80s, we helped close down the Combe Fill South Superfund site in Chester. That was a radioactive Washington Township municipal dump with contaminants that caused a fish kill in Trout Brook.
They are still finding new contaminants leaching into the groundwater. The community must bring in water, as they still can’t drink out of their own wells. It took a decade to get it closed down. So, there’s still scary stuff out there.
Plus, there are sudden spills where somebody let a hose run into the river and they were pumping something into a tank on a farm. Then suddenly the river’s filled with—who knows? The Glen Gardner Quarry had a discharge last year and destroyed the bottom of the Spruce Run Stream. That horrible quarry dust just smothered all the life, threatening the aquatic life. Those are things we jump on and work on with the DEP. But the bigger problems are the scary ones that everybody walks around forever. So, we’re going to work on Hercules.
NWNL You’ve talked about heavily irrigated lawns and golf courses, affecting water availability. Is that a growing concern?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes. Water conservation has always been an issue here, especially during droughts. But I believe this region is going to be fine with water quantity. We have terrible droughts, and we have periods where our surface water and our groundwater are plentiful. Groundwater threats occur when we have too much development and too many people using it. So, I think lawn irrigation should be outlawed. It is absolutely a terrible use of water and so wasteful. But we don’t have the capacity to police that. We do, however, pay attention to DEP water allocation permits, especially to golf courses.
I’m not very popular with those at the Trump Golf Course. Before we merged, Bill and I went over and challenged their water allocation permit. They literally pump clean, drinkable groundwater and surface water onto their courses. They’re watering the roughs, for God’s sake. It is just sickening. And they have retention ponds that they’ll never use apparently, because, of course, everything must be beautiful all the time. Thus, they’re not going to drain a retention pond to supply irrigation water. That really upsets me.
NWNL Has that been publicized?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Please. Yes, like crazy. It has, but it doesn’t do much good. Bill and I were in a film, following You’ve Been Trumped. We were in the Dangerous Game – all about golf courses. Specifically, we were interviewed about this one. I stay away from politics. However, we do challenge water allocation permits; we see the DEP list of applications; and we do monitor golf courses on a weekly basis.
NWNL So, you can monitor water abuses, but you have no leverage.
CINDY EHRENCLOU We can comment and we can testify. That could be a full-time job, including standard things, like permittees needing a renewal or a renewal discharge.
NWNL Is there a monitoring of the Trump Golf Course or any request that they change their watering systems?
CINDY EHRENCLOU No. It’s private. We did set up a water-monitoring relationship with Bedminster, and we can follow their next permit allocation that’s coming up, but that may not be until 2022.
NWNL Can they use all the clean, fresh, drinkable water they want?
CINDY EHRENCLOU That’s what’s happening, and there are huge events there, when its water use is horrible. Interestingly, the USGA here in Far Hills is talking about sustainability and getting much better about monitoring their events, asking “Where is our wastewater going?” and “How much fresh water are we using?” They seem to be really trying.
NWNL Have you made any official comments on the Clean Water Act newly proposed definition of the “Waters of the U.S.” [hereafter, WOTUS]?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Well, we’re certainly involved. We make comments; and we can write letters, per our connection with C-4 groups. We can work through The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and I’m on the board of that organization. We must be very careful about being too political. Yet, these rollbacks are killing us. We faced the same issue with New Jersey under Gov. Christie. He unraveled 20 years of good work.
NWNL This WOTUS definition took 20 years to pass, and in 2 years it’s gotten overturned — if it goes through. There is now a 60-day commentary period, and I think we’re more than halfway through that period.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Our comments are made through the Highlands Coalition, because our voice is not as strong as theirs.
NWNL In our NWNL newsletter we’ve asked people to comment on WOTUS. NWNL is concerned about this because it has so many issues, including those you address – from small vernal pools to ag ditches and all other waterways impacted by this rule.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes, our wetlands are going to be in big, big trouble.
NWNL As will waters flowing from the many farms in the South Branch.
NWNL I’d like to discuss your role for many years as a Land Trust – and full disclosure, I am on the Tewksbury Land Trust Board. What is the importance of “open space” for you today? In 2009 you said it was a great “tool in your toolbox.” Have you preserved more land since 2000? And what is the commitment of local people to protecting open space?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Open space is the best way to protect a water resource, but it’s expensive. You can’t possibly buy up all the land, and the big challenge our land ownership carries is stewardship, which is expensive. We simply can’t own any more land because we don’t have the capacity. On Fairview Farm and our Fox Hill property invasives are taking over and trails need to be maintained. We are responsible when a tree falls where it shouldn’t and for maintaining public access because we participate in the Green Acres tax-exempt program. All our properties – across three counties – must be posted and safe for public access. While open space protection is very, very expensive, it’s also the best protection. Yet, I don’t know how we’re going to deal with all our stewardship responsibilities. It terrifies me.
NWNL Much of your landscape is forested. What stewardship does that require?
CINDY EHRENCLOU I went out to Fox Hill with Christie two days ago. She was speechless and so upset by a forest mow that we did. But a very good partner provides 50% grants to do this forest mow.
NWNL Could you define “forest mow”?
CINDY EHRENCLOU A forest mow is when you remove the invasives from the forest floor in a manner that leaves very little successional forest growth. When done, it looks like some crazy person came away and hacked everything, leaving a few tulip trees and the occasional oak. All the spice bush and wonderful little treasurers in the landscape are usually so engulfed with invasives that you lose them in a forest mow.
Christie was beside herself with what looked like a logging operation, because with this method, you open the canopy even more, allowing more sunlight and thus more invasives. Now, in dead winter, it’s brown and hideous; but by July, four feet of invasive autumn olive and barberry will have returned. You can’t keep up with it. And this was the teeniest little patch, just 2 acres out of a 65-acre place.
Philosophically, I think that we must focus on new approaches and be opportunistic with these invasives. To make a forest healthier and get these trees literally “out of the weeds,” we need to plant and cage trees – not in those ridiculous blue plastic things that are horrible. To plant bigger-caliper trees amidst deer, we need to nurture fewer trees; invest in better protection; and see if we can get our forest back that way. You can hack away, maybe do some fencing to protect some precious natives. But this “sweep approach” of mowing is not working.
Those ugly blue things are creating leggy trees trying to find the sunlight; and 1out of 100 survives. The others fall over when you take the blue tube off, or they’re filled with wasps’ nests. Even with using Boy Scouts, corporate groups and our own sweat, our forests and New Jersey’s forests are in big trouble. There’s no succession going on.
NWNL What future do you see for your beautiful forests, now besieged by browsing deer?
CINDY EHRENCLOU As an organization, I’m scared, because I believe you must take care of what you own. That’s what I’ve really focused on here at Fairview Farm: from the barn falling down to the crud everywhere. But we don’t have the staff, the human or fiscal resources, or the capacity to manage all this. We really need to rethink this. We’re now capitalizing on corporations and their volunteer workdays. They are fantastic, but it means we need a volunteer coordinator to manage that.
NWNL Then, what’s your next option?
CINDY EHRENCLOU I think we need more cooperation between organizations. I’m happy the Tewksbury Land Trust is working with us on one trail. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful thing. If the goal is to get people out there, loving it and connecting with it, The Tewksbury Land Trust will take care of it and support conservation. I think that is fabulous. As they connect more people to the land with stewardship activities, people will feel more ownership of a place that they love. It’s just a lot of work. It worries me.
NWNL It worries me also. When I was asked to join the Tewksbury Land Trust, I researched critiques of other land trusts to understand commonly needed focuses; what would I want to see happen; and what were they were already doing. My big take-away was that stewardship is key. It’s great they have Eagle Scouts and the Girl Scouts helping, but that’s not going to beat this huge invasive issue. Having grown up here, I’m now watching the big, tall trees of the Upper Raritan falling down in every storm and deer browsing young saplings. So now there is no undercover left in the woods where I grew up, except invasive barberry. I fear that two generations from now, there won’t be any forest, because there are no little trees coming up.
CINDY EHRENCLOU I have a friend who says, “Cindy, it’s going to be a desert.” Well, maybe not a desert, but it is a huge issue.
NWNL Yes, I look at it with nostalgia, but also with an awareness that we need forests to save our water resources and their retention. Our watersheds need healthy forest for our watersheds.
CINDY EHRENCLOU We teach people to vegetate their riparian corridors, to not mow their lawns, and to create rain gardens. That is certainly helpful. Tracking our metrics, last year we planted over 14,000 trees. That’s exciting, and done with the help of corporate partners, grants and partnering with The Nature Conservancy’s “Roots and Rivers Program” that helps us buy and plant trees.
My big rant is about the way we’re doing it. I think we need bigger trees with different kinds of protection. I don’t see success in these existing projects. The tree-planting mission is amazing; and people work so hard. I would just like to see more success. I want them to come back and with their kids and say, “I planted this forest – or this grove of trees” or “I protected this stream.” I hate to see all this grant money just washing down the stream. That is my big rant.
NWNL Out of those 14,000 trees planted last year, how many are alive now?
CINDY EHRENCLOU I don’t know. We have a forester on our stewardship committee, who does an inventory. This is my problem: we’ve grown so big that I’m so disconnected from some of our programs. It makes me a little crazy that I don’t have those answers for you. But I do know we’re not having the success I’d like.
NWNL Your stewardship manpower is from scouts and corporate workforce.
CINDY EHRENCLOU They’re the two biggest groups; and we have a very strong corps of volunteers mostly from corporate groups, and also from school groups and civic groups. We’ve capitalized on the sustainability aspect in corporations’ core mission. They have amazing team-building experiences and make a big difference.
Corporations give us $1,000 to work for them. We bring tools and gloves; talk to them about watersheds; and educate them. They work for a morning digging, caging and scooping out something. They have a meaningful experience. In one year, we had over 13,000 volunteers. Tracking metrics helps us tell this story in a big way. Then with GIS, we help tell their story through social media. It’s a win for everybody.
NWNL Numbers are important.
CINDY EHRENCLOU Yes, because nobody wants to read anymore. They just want to see. We also tell stories; but we’ve learned to make them very short. Nobody listens beyond one sound bite.
NWNL It’s especially hard when you have so much to say. But it’s important. That’s what your role is all about.
NWNL Tell me about your watershed seminars for municipal leaders. Have they worked well?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Very well. We had six seminars last year on topics like stormwater and rain infrastructure. Christie leads them, using experts or partnering with experts on the issue being discussed. With these we get added involvement from new mayors, new Planning Boards and new environmental commission. Many become volunteers, even those who didn’t have a clue what stormwater runoff means.
With seminars in different counties and libraries, we’ve attracted about 35 leaders who learn something they knew nothing about. They go off armed with information, so that’s great. We send postcard or Constant Contact invitations; register them; find a location; and put out the food and all bells and whistles. It is important because most change happens on a local level. We really need to involve these towns.
NWNL Is green infrastructure catching on with people? Is there interest in better drainage?
CINDY EHRENCLOU Well, I think rain gardens are sexy, although rain barrels can be a nightmare to maintain if the hoses or the gutters aren’t connected. But planting rain gardens appeals to people. When we offer workshops for environmental commissions, they take the message home and create municipal or school lawns as models for others. So, that’s pretty sexy!
NWNL This issue is such a win-win.
CINDY EHRENCLOU We built rain gardens and green infrastructure here at Fairview Farm, so people can see and learn them. We also have signage and education, saying, “This was a stormwater basin that is now a beautiful garden to enjoy.” Again, maintenance is a chore. That’s my only beef – it’s a lot of work.
NWNL Nothing’s easy.
CINDY EHRENCLOU No, but it’s worthwhile.
NWNL Cindy, kudos to you for all your efforts; and thank you for your time and valuable insights on the Raritan River Basin, its stewardship and information on the model provided by Raritan Headwaters Association.
Posted by NWNL on August 18, 2021.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.
Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.