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NOTES FROM A MUSKY TRAIL HIKER #8: A Messy Forest is a Healthy Forest

A regular blog sharing a biology observation from my hike on the Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area trail in Asbury.

-Tish Lascelle, MWA President


You know that stereotype about women loving shoes? Well, I love coats and trees. There’s no explanation for the coat thing; it’s not like I was traumatized by going without one as a kid. But I suspect many of you recognize the tree thing. Trees are a source of incredible energy. I feel happiness and peace when I walk through the woods. In all my years of home ownership, I have also felt real sadness when I’ve had to take down a dead tree threatening my home.

So it was, that I was physically affected when I saw the damage a wind shear event (or maybe tornado, we don’t know) did to the woods along the Musky trail. The tops of many trees were sheared off, leaving what looked like telephone poles; other trees were overturned leaving their massive root structure pointing at the sky. I’d never seen the aftermath of a destructive weather event like this. For 90 minutes, I walked and climbed around and over the damage, repeatedly saying “Oh My God” and, “What a mess!” But there was a competing voice, also repeating “A messy forest is a healthy forest”.

Right now, these woods are untidy and chaotic – made all the more visible by winter’s lack of coverage. This natural disturbance is actually good – and believe it or not, we will just let it be for the most part. Nature doesn’t need our intervention to be a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Dead and dying trees are just as valuable as the living ones. Fallen branches or trunks and overturned root systems provide crucial habitat for fungi, insects and other animals. The opened canopy will allow more light in, which might allow smaller understory trees to thrive. We will have to watch that unwanted invasive plants aren’t also given a stronger foothold by this light. Right next to the river, we will want to do some restoration because those forest buffer trees shade the river, keeping it cooler and improving the habitat for cold water fish like trout.

If you have kids, I encourage you to go explore the trail right now. It’s quite fascinating and a good opportunity to see something rare. I often like to include an odd fact in my blogs. Today’s piece of trivia: Standing dead trees are known as ‘snags’. I think you may have some other questions, so here’s a little Q&A:

Who owns the property the Musky Trail is on?

The MWA owns a small section close to Maple Avenue; the remainder is a NJ Wildlife Management Area (WMA). WMA regulations prohibit cutting or damaging vegetation and removing timber or firewood.

Who maintains the Education Trail?

The trail was cleared about 12 years ago, as part of an Eagle Scout project, with MWA and other volunteers. MWA holds a Special Use Permit from the Division of Fish & Wildlife which gives us permission to erect informational signs, build needed trail bridges and do other trail maintenance. However, as a non-profit organization, we do not maintain year-round grounds staff, and rely upon volunteers for maintaining the trail.

Who will clean up the current mess?

We are checking with the State to see if they may be able to help because of the unusual and severe event, but the State is quite under-resourced to maintain WMAs. We will depend primarily on volunteers. Currently, there is no formal ‘volunteer trail clearing day’ planned. But if you go walking, take a pair of clippers or a handsaw with you and toss what you can off the trail. Only a path about 4’ wide is needed. You will notice the sawn ends of logs from previous clearing efforts, where only the path is cut, but the logs remain in place. At some point, some chainsaw-experienced help will be needed. And if it’s not on the trail, and not posing a danger, we will let it be.

The MWA will soon bring on a Community Engagement and Volunteer Coordinator. This person will have a holistic look at the trail and coordinate appropriate restoration activities.


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