Drew University’s campus is known for its majestic old oak trees and beautiful natural areas, with fertile forest ecosystems, ponds, and glacial features. Several major initiatives help to preserve and restore ecological integrity to the Drew University Forest Preserve and to the entire campus:
Each spring, students organize an Earth Week celebration and gardening event known as Fern Fest. The community gathers to replace a section of campus lawn with diverse native ferns and wildflowers, helping to restore the forest ecosystem that once thrived here. By planting native species we restore at least some elements of the natural forest ecosystem, which will then bring back other components such as birds, butterflies, and soil fauna. Instead of a “dead zone” of exotic ornamental plants from distant continents, we create an approximation of the natural forest. Moreover, many native wildflowers are imperiled by suburban development, and by establishing new populations we hope to help stave off local extinction. Fern Fest plantings have greatly enhanced species richness and ecosystem complexity. Where only a few species of scrawny grasses and weeds once grew, some 70 native species have been planted, including 40 types of wildflowers, a dozen species of small shrubs, and a large proportion of the region’s non-wetland ferns. Over 5000 ferns, wildflowers, and low shrubs have been planted to form a lush, natural ground layer beneath our ancient trees.
An exciting and far-reaching project is underway to restore ecological integrity to the Drew University Forest Preserve, as reported recently in New Jersey Audubon Magazine. Over the years, the Drew Forest Preserve had deteriorated, like other forests throughout our region. Beneath a tree canopy of many species, the forest undergrowth was stripped by overabundant deer and was choked out by invasive plants, particularly Norway maple and garlic mustard. , The canopy itself was under attack by invasive wisteria and oriental bittersweet vines, which strangle trees and convert woods to shrublands. Only with intervention was there any hope for the ecosystem to regain its structure and acquire a new generation of trees to perpetuate the forest. The project has three components:
A high-quality, 10’ fence to protect the forest from deer (spring 2011). Deer fencing with self-closing gates for pedestrian access was constructed in spring 2011. This essential step was made possible by the generosity of environmentalist and naturalist Chris Hepburn, for whom the focal area has been named.
- Control of invasive plants by teams of students and other volunteers (2008-present). For assistance and expertise, Drew University was awarded partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and with the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Private Lands Stewardship Program.
- Reintroduction of native trees and undergrowth lost from the ecosystem. Over 1200 native plants , representing 16 tree species and 4 species of shrub, were provided in April 2011 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, most grown by prison inmates as part of a work program. Students, faculty, and staff were joined for tree planting by the Pfizer Volunteer Committee (which also helped remove invasive plants) as well as our New Jersey Audubon and U.S. Fish and Wildlife partners. Another 450 native ferns were donated by AL Services and planted at the shoreline of the Zuck Arboretum ponds.
The Drew Forest Preserve is a significant island of natural woodland in a sea of suburban development. At least 120 different bird species have been observed, with heavy visitation by spring and fall migrants. The Drew Preserve has long been an important educational resource for college students, inner-city high school students, other children, and visiting community groups. It is also used heavily for research on forest ecology, pond ecosystems, and wildlife by faculty, students, and other scientists. Thus restoring biodiversity to this forest will have far-reaching educational and scientific benefits, alongside the benefits of more trees, richer diversity, and improved bird habitat.
Native Plant Policy
To further enrich ecological integrity, native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers are also chosen for other plantings throughout the campus. This forward-looking policy parallels other campus sustainability policies and practices at Drew, from integrated pest management (pesticides are rarely used) to dining hall composting to LEED-certified construction to our climate action plan.
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