Saturday Trail Maintenance


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The first Saturday of the month—except in the coldest of winter months—volunteers make their way to the Watchung Reservation to work on the many trails that weave through the 2,000-acre preserve.

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 the more than 500 people who volunteer every year to work in the county’s parks.

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.

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.

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 he and his friend, Bill Wallis, which check their section of the Sierra Trail—a 10-mile loop around the reservation—and make sure their section of the trail is in good shape.

Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski , the freeholder board’s liaison to the parks, said the county would never be able to afford a staff to do the myriad of projects “the volunteers willingly take on.”

“We owe them an immeasurable debt of thanks,” Kowalski said.

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 908-789-3683.

Eighty-three year-old Mae Deas, of Scotch Plains is the oldest volunteer on the trails crews. A member of the Union County Hiking Club, which she joined in 1975, she cares for a portion of the Yellow Trail, which goes west from the Trailside Nature and Science Center.

“We use the park a lot for our hiking so we thought we’d come out and help. You give back a little bit,” she said. When she leads hikes through the reservation, Deas confesses that she enjoys mixing the hike both with the marked trails and some of the unmarked paths that weave through the preserve. And she keeps a healthy pace over those 4 1/2 mile jaunts.

“Sometimes I’m accused of walking too fast,” she said.


SOMEWHERE IN THE WATCHUNG RESERVATION…is where Manny Geiger can usually be found. The Dunellen resident spends so much time walking the miles of hiking trails through the 2,060-acre preserve that he wanted to find a way to give back. Geiger joined the Adopt-A-Trail program, where he now looks after and maintains a portion of the White Trail.


CARRYING SEEDLINGS FOR PLANTING…Employees from LexisNexis in New Providence and other volunteers recently planted nearly 600 seedlings in Union County’s Lenape Park. 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.


FILLING ANOTHER WHEELBARROW…with woodchips that will be used to prevent erosion on a trail in Union County’s Watchung Reservation. Bob Czaja, of Scotch Plains, is a volunteer trail steward who helps maintain the miles of trails in the county’s 2,000-acre preserve.


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.


ADDING DEER PROTECTION… Surya Rao, of Scotch Plains, 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. The protective netting was placed on saplings to protect them from deer.


SHARING A LAUGH…with some of her colleagues from LexisNexis, Janet Nigro prepares to plant a sapling in Union County’s Lenape Park. Nigro, who grew up in Scotch Plains, was a frequent visitor to the park when she was young, so when her colleagues at her New Providence office decided to dedicate a day of service at the park, she wanted to participate. The 15 LexisNexis employees planted nearly 600 saplings.


EIGHTY-PLUS 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 as part of the