Cruising past farmland just off of Rt. 27 in Franklin Township, an elbow-bend in the road signals that Negri-Nepote is just ahead. On this particular morning, around 20 volunteers have gathered all for one purpose: to plant. Ranging in age from the very young to those who have acquired a lifetime of wisdom, each volunteer wields the tools of the trade- gloves, a trowel, and native seedlings by the dozens. The morning air is chillier than most planned for, but the work of weeding and hauling mulch warms as much as any jacket. A father leans over his daughter to help her direct her attempts at preparing the soil. A nature enthusiast bends close to native wildflowers, looking for just the right angle for her camera lens. Laughter mingles with the songs of sparrows, and the hustle and bustle of Rt. 27 is not even a memory. A grassland enables a unique perspective–all are small against the expanse of the sky.
A high-density state like New Jersey needs spaces for habitat that all species can enjoy, and Negri-Nepote, a 164 acre property just a mile from a state highway, is such a place. Speaking on behalf of the township, Fran Varacalli says, “A place like this makes a difference, volunteering here ties people to the land and gives them a sense of common purpose and community. The upside is that we don’t have to pay public works and helping the landscape enables us to enjoy and learn about the properties the township owns.”
This volunteer effort was undertaken last weekend with the purpose of installing native plants in a demonstration garden, which will eventually include a handicapped-accessible trail through the plots. Already, the preserve includes a trail 3/10th of a mile which is wheelchair friendly. The day’s plantings included bee balm, wild columbine, and blazing star, to name a few. The effort was a success, and the goal ”to make this little corner of Franklin a better habitat for the microbes, the butterflies, the bees, and the vast world of living things with which we co-exist, ” as volunteer Melba Battin put it, was accomplished.
Negri-Nepote was purchased in 2003 by Franklin Township and a restoration project was carried out on 111 acres, converting cropland to native grasslands. A varied array of grasses includes Canada wild rye, little bluestem, big bluestem, and Indiangrass. Wildflower plantings at the preserve include heath aster, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, wild bergamot, butterflyweed, common milkweed, and Joe Pye weed. A wetland restoration was carried out on 2.5 acres which provides a stopover point for migrating shorebirds, and an observation blind as well as nesting boxes were constructed on the property.
The preserve provides habitat for declining songbirds, and thus is a popular spot for local birders. It includes just under 3 miles of trails to wander in search of state threatened species such as the grasshopper sparrow, which have been heard and spotted at Negri-Nepote many times. A complete checklist for birders can be downloaded here.
The native wildflowers on the property provide attraction for many butterfly species, and a full list of those you might find at Negri-Nepote can be found here.
As we made our way back towards the urban and suburban corridors of Rt. 27 last weekend, a milk snake cautiously slithered across the road, narrowly missing a series of tires. We stopped, and the oncoming car did as well. A man jumped out to deliver the critter safely to the other side. The snake was headed in the right direction– towards the oasis of grassland habitat amongst an otherwise human-centered world–it just needed our help to get there.
If you are interested in volunteer efforts or nature walks at this preserve, contact FranklinTrails(at)gmail.com. Special instructions? “Bring binoculars, if you have them, and good footwear.” Come along, the flora and fauna of Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve are waiting.
Directions and a further description of the preserve can be found on the NJ Audubon website at this link: Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve.