Opinion: Save the Sourlands


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I was having coffee with a friend once, and she said, “I’m not a birder. Why should I care about birds?” I said, “You love coffee, so you must love birds!” 

The brilliant scarlet tanager spends winter in Central and South America. Like lots of colorful songbirds, she spends her winter vacation in the dense shade of coffee plantations eating bugs. In the summer, she wings her way back to the quiet Sourland forest canopy to lay eggs and raise babies just as her parents did before her.

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This year when she comes back to New Jersey, our tanager may not recognize her home. Over one million trees are dying here due to an invasive insect, the emerald ash borer. That’s 1 of every 5 trees! If Ms. Tanager makes her nest in the fragmented forest, her babies may not be safe. Predators will easily be able to find them, because the forest cover will be sparse. If she does begin to raise a family, they may not reach maturity. 

The United States has lost 3 billion birds since the 1970s, causing the National Audubon Society to declare a “bird emergency” to protect the ones that are left.

If you think of a migratory path as a link in a chain, it’s easy to see that every link is equally important. We know that the Sourland Mountain is a strong link. In fact, the entire Sourland Mountain region is a designated Continental IBA (Important Bird Area). Our region contains approximately 25,000 acres of mature, contiguous forest and 7,500 acres of wetlands. Resident and migratory birds eat bugs and caterpillars that feed on trees and farmers’ crops here: natural insect control.

Now, we would like to point a finger at bulldozers in the Amazon as the cause for plummeting bird numbers, but our link is weakening right now due to ash decline, deer overpopulation and other threats. We all can help make it stronger. 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Forest Service, New Jersey Fish & Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Watershed Institute, D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Tree Planted, Washington Crossing Audubon Society, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Montgomery Friends of Open Space, Hunterdon Land Trust, Mercer County, Somerset County, Hunterdon County, Hopewell Township, West Amwell, East Amwell, Hillsborough Township, Montgomery Township, Hopewell Borough, Princeton Township, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and many, many others have joined the Sourland Conservancy in recognizing the importance of the Sourland forest and the threat of ash decline. We are all taking active steps to protect and preserve the clean water, fresh air, carbon sequestration and critical habitat that the forest provides for all of us.

This spring and fall, Sourland Conservancy staff and volunteers will be joining our partners to plant thousands of trees! Please participate in a public planting event and plant native plants at home – in your yard or in a window box. Every native plant helps provide critical food and shelter for pollinators, birds and other animals. Protect our clean water by reducing your use of pesticides and herbicides. The birds and butterflies will thank you.

Right now, the New Jersey Department of Transportation is deciding whether or not to increase helicopter traffic in the Sourlands. The applicant is a private golf club. This, to me, is a clear opportunity to act in our own self-interest and preserve this precious ecosystem – or stand by and do nothing. 

It’s time for us to stop building unnecessary helistops and pipelines. It’s time to look around, see what we have, and take responsibility. We must tell our elected officials that we care – and we expect them to care, too. An election is coming up. Please sign our petition on change.org and call Gov. Phil Murphy, your state senator, and your assembly members today to urge them to Save the Sourlands.

Laurie Cleveland
Executive Director
Sourland Conservancy

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