2009-07-30 / Front Page

Plant Corps restores coastal habitat at Hook

Program protects plant life natural to local environment
BY TOM SHORTELL Staff Writer

For the past month, a team of five people has climbed through poison ivy, shrubs and tick-infested woods, cutting down at least 300 trees along the northern reaches of Sandy Hook.

Lucas Kelly, an intern with the Student Conservation Association, spends his days at Sandy Hook removing invasive species of flora. Lucas Kelly, an intern with the Student Conservation Association, spends his days at Sandy Hook removing invasive species of flora. The crew is with the Student Conservation Association's Native Plant Corps, a group that works to restore native plants to their communities.

The National Park Service asked the SCA, which provides college and high school students with hands-on environmental field experience, to clear plants that are not natural to the local environment.

"The invasive plants are becoming more and more of a problem," said Bruce Lane, the park's natural resource management supervisor. "I'd say about 38 percent of the plants in the park are non-native plants. Part of our primary purpose of being here is to preserve coastal habitats."

Armed with power tools, work gloves and handsaws, the plant corps has hacked down invasive plants that rob the native life of resources, said Denise Emley, the project supervisor.

Jordan Springer is one of four interns and a project supervisor who are also restoring native plant life at the Gateway National Recreation Area unit. Jordan Springer is one of four interns and a project supervisor who are also restoring native plant life at the Gateway National Recreation Area unit. "Plants, insects and all sorts of animals have evolved into a certain ecosystem," Emley said. "They don't use [the invasive species]."

The chief offender in the park is the tree of heaven, a Chinese import that thrives in harsh environments, Emley said. Needing little room or care to grow, they're found in cities and abandoned lots across the country; it's the titular plant in the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

The tree closely resembles the native winged sumac, one of the native plants the crew is trying to protect. The easiest way to tell the difference is to break a shoot and take a whiff, Emley said.

"Sometimes, we have to smell the tree to see what it is," she said. If it smells like cashews, it's a tree of heaven."

The land Emley and her crew of four college interns have covered is along the Historic Sandy Hook Proving Grounds. A hundred years ago, the land was clear of brush, and massive guns could fire man-sized rounds miles away, according to a park sign. Now, the woods are so thick the ocean can't be seen from the giant concrete bunker that housed the artillery.

"It's hard just to maneuver through the terrain," Emley said.

If the carcasses of 300 downed trees spread throughout the woods weren't enough to impede them, there's plenty of living flora, too. Vines along the ground snare passing feet, and sometimes the best way to get around is to barrel through underbrush.

One of the native plants being protected by the crew is poison ivy, which provides food to birds. It complicates the working conditions.

"Yesterday we had to take a field trip to the hospital for steroid treatment for poison ivy," said Cynthia Davy on July 8. "Sometimes you just want to give it [the poison ivy] a clip," the University of Wisconsin student said, holding her saw.

Jordan Springer, an intern from Milford, visited the park in high school but never realized the number of trees that grew so close to the shore.

"I thought, 'It's a beach, how [many] plants can you get?' " the University of Rhode Island student said.

Despite the long hours, difficult terrain and poison ivy, Springer said the work is well worth it.

"I like feeling like I'm doing something that's helping the environment," he said.

Those interested in applying for future internships with the SCA can visit www.thesca.org.

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