UNION COUNTY—Some take off a day from work. Some come the first Saturday of the month.
Some are teens earning community service hours while others, like Boy Scouts, need projects to advance in rank. And then there are the retired, who have the flexibility to turn out whenever the whim strikes.
But what they all share in common is a love for the outdoors and a deep concern for Union County’s parks, whether it is ripping invasive plants out of Lenape Park in Cranford or repairing the trails that weave for miles through the 2,060-acre Watchung Reservation.
“As a kid, I was up in the reservation all the time,” said Lawrence Russo, who grew up in Plainfield and now lives in Cranford. “Now that I’m semi-retired, I can give back. It’s a beautiful area and I want to maintain it.”
Russo is just one of nearly 550 people who volunteered their time this past year to work in the county’s parks. All totaled, they put in nearly 2,700 service hours, according to officials.
The volunteers are an indispensable part of maintaining the county’s parks, said Alfred Faella, director of Parks and Community Renewal.
“These volunteers enable us to get to projects that we would never be able to get to because of limited resources and staff,” Faella said.
Recent Boy Scout projects have included the building of footbridges, kiosks and nesting boxes for birds in several parks. A fishing area on Lake Surprise was redesigned to be accessible to the disabled while in the Rahway River Parkway, a turtle crossing was created to increase protection for the snapping and box turtles living near Munsee Pond.
A number of larger projects, such as the removal of invasive species and their replacement with native plants have been tackled on group days.
While groups of volunteers have come from area churches and civic associations, a number of area corporations give their employees release time to work with a range of community service projects.
Recently, a group from LexisNexis in New Providence, spent the day planting in Lenape Park .
Lenape has had a huge problem combating Japanese Knotweed, so much so that the county requested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to spray sections of the park for the past three years to bring it under control.
However, once an area has been cleared, then new plantings that include native species, must be planted in order to reclaim the area.
As Surya Rao worked with his colleagues to plant nearly 600 saplings, the former Summit resident said he takes a great deal of pleasure in volunteering for the days of service in the parks.
“I like it,” said Surya Rao, noting that living in an apartment in Scotch Plains, he rarely has the opportunity to work outside.
“I like being in nature. And whatever we plant is going to stay for a long time,” he said.
Because the weather can turn pretty nasty over the coming winter months, the group projects will not resume until the spring. However, many of those who turned out for the last trail day—Adopt A Trail work days are held the first Saturday of the month—will continue to volunteer through the winter, as trail stewards.
Assigned to various stretches of trail across the 2,000-acre reservation, they check to see that the trails remain passable for hikers.
Some, like Bob Czaja, of Scotch Plains, went to special chain saw training classes. Now the 72-year-old retiree from Merck and his friend, Bill Wallis, check their section of the Sierra Trail—a 10-mile loop around the reservation—and make sure it is in good shape.
For so many of the volunteers, the parks have always held a special place in their hearts. Russo is now the steward for a section of trail near Seeley’s Pond, on the western end of the reservation.
“My buddies and I would ice skate all the way up the Green Brook to Seeley’s Pond and we would camp out there,” said Russo. ”It was illegal, but we were 10 years old.”
Any individuals, corporations or community groups wishing to volunteer for the Adopt-A-Trail or Adopt-A-Park programs can sign up by calling the parks department at 1-908-789-3683.
CARRYING SEEDLINGS FOR PLANTING…Employees from LexisNexis in New Providence and other volunteers recently planted nearly 600 seedlings in Union County’s Lenape Park in Cranford. With help from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the county is working to eradicate Japanese Knotweed, an invasive plant that has been taking over large sections of the park. Once the knotweed is killed off, the volunteers help plant native species.
DIGGING A HOLE…where the plants will go in is Surya Rao of Scotch Plains. Rao was one of 15 volunteers from LexisNexis in New Providence who spent a day in Union County’s Lenape Park in Cranford planting native species to replace invasives, like Japanese Knotweed, that were taking over portions of the park.
DUMPING ANOTHER LOAD…of woodchips is Westfield resident Chris Ames, a volunteer trail steward at Union County’s Watchung Reservation. While Ames worked with a crew one recent Saturday morning on the Orange Trail, he is responsible for a section of the White Trail that runs along the north side of Lake Surprise. The woodchips help alleviate some of the erosion problems.
EIGHTY-THREE AND GOING STRONG…Mae Deas, of Scotch Plains works on removing an invasive bush from the Watchung Reservation. Deas, the oldest volunteer on the trails crews, cares for a portion of the Yellow Trail, which runs west from the Trailside Nature and Science museum. A member of the Union County Hiking Club, she also leads hikes through the 2,060-acre preserve.
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