Refuge’s Environmental Trail Pays It Forward

By JIM CURLEY | Nov 20, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Newly planted trees along the trail will take on an ‘old growth’ look in years to come.

The area’s newest park, the Cedar Bonnet Island Environmental Trail section of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Bonnet Island, may be a big letdown to the first-time visitor.

At its start, just off Route 72 between the homes on Cedar Bonnet Island to the east and the eastbound Dorland Henderson Bridge to the west, the mile-long trail initially is alluring. A large stand of mature trees greets you scant yards from the entrance. If this initial view seems familiar, it was the backdrop for The Shack, an old hunting outpost that won the heart of every LBI resident as it grew old gracefully before it died in 2012 at the hands of a furious Superstorm Sandy.

The trail moves in a serpentine way past grand trees and dense foliage that hide chirping birds. On one visit, I passed a quartet of birders aiming their binoculars at sounds emitting from the greenery. With my naked eyes I couldn’t see any movement in the tall trees, so I nodded to the birders and moved on.

A short distance beyond, the woods give way to newer growth, an area labeled as “Habitat Restoration” on the map posted at the beginning of the environmental trail. Several vistas open up. To play on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” two roads diverged from there. Unlike Frost, I was not initially tempted by the choice of paths afforded me; both seemed uninteresting as there were no old-growth trees ahead of me.

The hum of traffic from the bridge dulled as I walked south toward the bay, replaced by the occasional sound of an outboard motor from the water. The path south cuts through the uplands and goes on a straight line to Great South Bay with several Atlantic City casinos visible in the distance. It ends at a picnic table and a bike rack, but no trash receptacle – carry out what you bring in. Clearly, it’s a backpack with bottled-water-and-a-sandwich kind of place, rather than a picnic-basket-and-a-chilled-white-wine venue.

The path east meanders toward views of the new skyline of Cedar Bonnet Island (the populated part) and Ship Bottom, with houses elevated after the devastation of Sandy.

It is here in the park’s “inner sanctum” that the path east dead-ends. I backtracked a bit, then turned left toward a coastal marsh, which has seen remediation of the dredging that had occurred in past eras. Also, historic tidal patterns have been reintroduced, thanks to the strategic placement of fresh topsoil.

Before it turns toward the south, the path borders a pollinator habitat, which contains plants, flowers, grasslands and meadows that will attract pollinators. Have at it, bees, monarch butterflies and other winged creatures. It’s your space.

The uplands area, which has seen significant planting of trees in the past few years, will give a real “old-growth” look to the area in as little as a decade, a state Department of Transportation official said.

The 2029 visitor to the protected property will see a significantly different wild space than we see today. Taller trees, increased undergrowth – a more sustainable environment for the flora and fauna that will live there. We who mostly inhabited the 20th century may have come late to our duty as stewards of the Earth. This is a move in the right direction for future generations.

For humans who venture here years from now, the signs they see today – “Stay on the Trails” – may seem redundant. As trees and plants grow, visitors will likely have little choice than to stick to the paths laid out for them. An indication of humanity’s place in this refuge may be that the administrators of the land call the walkway through the park a “patch.”

This newest addition to Forsythe land, which totals 47,000 acres throughout southern New Jersey, will be a refuge for animals returning to ancestral homes and humans wanting to escape the world outside our crowded space, a world that is at times “too much with us.”

For LBI residents who have seen open space on the Island constrict drastically in recent years, the refuge offers a counterpoint to building on almost every piece of valuable land to the east. As the forest matures, the hum of traffic and the drone of watercraft will be further muted to visitors wishing to touch wilderness, if briefly.

Jim Curley lives in Ship Bottom.



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