Friday, February 9, 2024

Tales of Winter Toil to Improve Trails at Autumn Hill Reservation

People tend to think of winter as a dormant time for the outdoors. The woods around Princeton seem static, with the color palette reduced to infinite shades of gray and brown. For a preserve manager, however, it's this dormancy that makes now the best of times to be working on trails and habitat. Invasive shrubs in full summer growth somehow feel much more intimidating. At Autumn Hill Reservation, which is tended to by the Friends of Herrontown Woods, winter is the best time to carve through dense stands of invasives to shift some trails to dryer ground and more interesting routes.

Most people know about Autumn Hill's most charismatic feature: this abandoned automobile. 

Fewer have noticed this plaque at a homestead site nearby, where pachysandra and bottlebrush buckeye speak to past habitation. But in some other areas of Autumn Hill's 70 acres, trails pass through less than engaging seas of invasive shrubs.

We've tried to add to the interest by looking for other landmarks to feature along trails. Last winter, one reroute incorporated a tree whose rootball had lifted four hefty boulders up when it fell. A bit uncanny: I was actually standing ten feet away, looking at it when one of the boulders fell back to the ground. The root ball is still holding onto the other three. 

It's heartening to see that the humble signage has not strayed from where we put it to help with navigating the new routes.

Winter rains highlight a few spots where we still need to either reroute trails or install a boardwalk. We grieved when this tree fell--probably the last wild butternut in Autumn Hill Reservation, pointed out to us by arborist Bob Wells when it was still alive. The wood is said to be good for carving, if we can get some of it out of the woods. FOHW has been planting butternuts elsewhere to see if we can bring back this largely lost species.

A recent success stories in Autumn Hill is the reroute of a chronically wet trail onto higher ground along a previously hidden old rock wall. It looks relatively tame now, but reclaiming this high ground for a trail required a major battle with dense and often thorny invasive shrubs. Multiflora rose, border privet, Linden viburnum, autumn olive, asian photinia, winged euonymus--this is the usual cast of characters in backyards and preserves town-wide that displaces native species more edible for wildlife. Cutting invasives to create a better trail counts as a win-win. While liberating spicebush, blueberries, and flowering dogwoods from competition, we get to expose interesting rock wall features and improve the hiking experience. I guess that's a win-win-win, which makes the work more rewarding. Simply by using the trail, hikers helped to maintain it. One year later, remembering the toil of creation, it's a pleasure to walk this trail and see how dry it is, despite recent heavy rains.

This winter, we're cutting through dense invasive shrubs to shift wet portions of the yellow trail to higher ground. Just to show what we're dealing with, here are three different species of invasive vine growing up a native tree: Asian bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, and multiflora rose. The latter is a thorny shrub that sometimes grows up trees as if it were a vine. Winter is a great time to cut these vines at the base. A "buckthorn blaster" is used to prevent regrowth.

Japanese stiltgrass makes these mops of light brown where it sprawled during late summer. Even this super invasive annual grass seems less intimidating in the winter, when it survives only as billions of seeds in the ground. 

One of the more positive stories in Princeton's nature preserves is the rebound of the native spicebush since the town began culling the deer herd in 2000. When I came to Princeton 20 years ago, spicebush were rare in the woods, and they looked like this, with a buzzcut of intensely browsed stems at the base of one mature trunk. With fewer deer to eat them, they have become numerous again, with many trunks reaching maturity. But this one, growing next to a trail frequented by the deer, shows what all spicebush used to look like. 

Despite the cold and color deprivation of winter, work in Autumn Hill Reservation lifts our spirits. It was ten years ago when Friends of Herrontown Woods made Autumn Hill's trails passable again. Each year, with incremental interventions, we can highlight more of the preserve's long hidden beauty and make it easier and more fun to hike there.