In an effort to help native plants survive and flourish at the Apshawa Preserve, New Jersey Conservation Foundation is putting the finishing touches on a 300-acre deer “exclosure” – the largest protected native plant area in the state.
 
The protective fence was installed this fall using a $125,000 grant from the National Forest Foundation. The grant paid New Jersey Conservation Foundation to put up 3.2 linear miles of wire fence, remove invasive plants like Japanese barberry and Oriental bittersweet, and plant native trees and bushes like oaks, maples, spicebush and viburnum. The project also includes the installation of nine pedestrian gates along the perimeter of the fence to encourage public access to the preserve’s trails.
 
According to Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist, deciduous forests like the one at Apshawa are under dual attack from overabundant white-tailed deer and invasive alien plants.
 
“It becomes a cascading effect: The deer overbrowse the native plants, allowing the invasives to gain a foothold. Then, because the deer seldom eat the invasives, those plants thrive while the natives become increasingly scarce,” explained DeVito.
 
Deer exclosures in other parts of the state have been shown to rapidly reverse the trend of forest degradation and species loss, DeVito noted. Within two years, he predicted, visitors to Apshawa will see a marked improvement in the health of the forest within the exclosure.
“Apshawa is at the tipping point, according to our data,” said DeVito. “Another few years of deer browse and it will become exceedingly difficult to recover the forest, as the roots will be too weak to respond.”
 
“Without the pressure from deer browse, hundreds of species of native plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds will be able to thrive as the food chain is restored,” he added.
 
The next step is enlisting the public’s help in herding deer out of the newly-fenced area.
 
A “deer drive” will be held on Sunday, Dec. 5, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Apshawa Preserve, which New Jersey Conservation Foundation co-owns and manages with Passaic County. The Foundation will need 50 to 80 volunteers to fan out on foot and herd deer from one end of the exclosure near the parking area off Macopin Road through fence openings at the other end, near the Butler Reservoir.
 
“Volunteers can expect to do approximately two miles of slow, off-trail walking,” explained Sieglinde Mueller, easement steward for New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Supervised children are welcome, she said. To volunteer for the deer drive, call Mueller at 908-234-1225. The rain date is Sunday, Dec. 12.
 
The 576-acre Apshawa Preserve offers a diversity of habitats in the heart of the New Jersey Highlands. The 40-acre Butler Reservoir is a scenic attraction for hikers and birdwatchers, and the Apshawa Brook flows through the preserve to the Pequannock River. Nearly seven miles of blazed trails traverse the mountainous preserve and are open to the public for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, nature study and fishing.
 
New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a private nonprofit whose mission is to preserve land and natural resources throughout New Jersey for the benefit of all. Since 1960, the Foundation has protected more than 120,000 acres, or 187 square miles. For more information on programs and preserves, visit www.njconservation.org or call 1-888-LAND-SAVE (1-888-526-3728).