The Rutgers Ecological Preserve: A Living Lab and Welcome Escape

Nearly 400 acres of contiguous forest, the land was designated a natural ecological preserve and teaching area by the Rutgers University Board of Governors in 1976.

By Carol Peters

As 400 acres of contiguous forest right outside of New Brunswick, the Rutgers EcoPreserve provides an ideal respite from suburbia, a living laboratory for Rutgers University, the state, and beyond, and a protected home for a variety of plant and animal species.

The Rutgers Ecological Preserve.
Photo: Matt Drews

It’s a cool, airy forest of oak, maple, cedar, elm, and hemlock trees. It’s a quiet place to explore miles of trails, and perhaps catch a fleeting glimpse of the white tail deer, salamanders, rabbits, groundhogs, foxes, birds, and even coyotes who live there. The forest is also home to native and invasive species of plants, as well as a brook that meanders through on its way to the Raritan. 

Where is this magical forest? It’s the Rutgers Ecological Preserve, located between Rutgers’ Livingston and Busch campuses. Nearly 400 acres of contiguous forest, the land was designated a natural ecological preserve and teaching area by the Rutgers University Board of Governors in 1976.

The EcoPreserve offers three major areas of interest, according to EOAS faculty member Richard Lathrop, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, in the School of Environmental and Biological SciencesRutgers University-New Brunswick, who has served as director of the preserve for the last decade. It is open space the public can use for recreation; it’s a natural laboratory used for teaching purposes; and it is used for monitoring and research.  

As director, Lathrop said his role is to ensure the EcoPreserve benefits both the university and New Jersey residents. “The access is one of its strong points for the Rutgers community and the public as a recreational resource,” Lathrop said. “I receive all sorts of unsolicited emails from people who appreciate the opportunity to go there – they have found real solace out there. They didn’t have to travel far to be able to enjoy a little peace and quiet out in the woods.” Expanding on its accessibility, Lathrop said next summer he will oversee a plan to build a handicap-accessible trail, a new third of a mile loop.

As a living lab for Rutgers students, the preserve offers extensive opportunities. Lathrop said ten years ago when he began as director, the initial plan was to establish the preserve as a monitoring program. So, he and students created permanent plots and then measured the tree canopy, understory, and shrub layer within each plot. 

This summer, 10 years later, Lathrop said two graduate students are measuring again to observe changes. One significant change they know they will be able to document, he said, will be the impact of the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that is working its way across central New Jersey killing ash trees. Lathrop said as a result there are a lot of dead ash trees in the preserve. 

Lathrop said the EcoPreserve also provides a field site for both undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from Rutgers but also other universities to study forest, meadow and stream ecosystems. What makes the EcoPreserve especially interesting is that it is one of the largest contiguous block of natural habitat in predominantly urban-suburban Central New Jersey. Lathrop said, “Assistant Professor Brooke Maslo, in the Rutgers Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources and also an EOAS faculty member, is using it as one of her bat survey sites. Her team went in last summer and they captured over 40 bats there in one night, more than they had captured at any of their other sites. By doing so they documented a federally threatened species, the northern long eared bat. That was pretty astounding and exciting.”

Because the EcoPreserve is a natural teaching area, Lathrop said he uses it in his Natural Resource Management class as a case study. “That’s where we hold our labs, out in the field in the preserve so the students actually do hands on projects. It’s a preserve, but it’s not completely hands off, so it provides a site where students can actually get their hands dirty and try a restoration project or a habitat management project. Then in succeeding years we use them, we look at projects from years ago to see if what the students were trying to do was successful or not.”

Integrating students into the maintenance of the trails, by hosting student volunteer work days, is another way Rutgers students become involved in the preserve, Lathrop said. “Sometimes we conduct service learning through my class, but I also work with the outdoor club, and the student chapter of the wildlife society, and sororities have asked if they can hold service days there. So during a typical semester we hold several work days with 10, 20, 30 students out doing trail work. Sometimes they just pick up garbage, and clean up the trails, other times we do trail maintenance work such as spreading woodchips.”  

Other Rutgers classes use the EcoPreserve as a living laboratory as well, Lathrop said. “The ornithology class uses it for birding, the limnology classes uses it because of the beautiful headwater stream that runs from the Livingston campus through the preserve to the Raritan. Ever since the Livingston campus rebuilt their whole storm water system the water quality in the stream has gotten much better. It goes through the preserve and then into Johnson Park and then out to the river. Buell Brook it’s called, and it’s a permanent stream, it doesn’t dry up.”

Green backed heron at the EcoPreserve.

Teaching this fall will pose new challenges, said Lathrop. Because all classes and labs will be held remotely due to the pandemic, students will not be able to visit the preserve in person.  “This fall I am going to ask my students to find open spaces near their homes to use as field sites, rather than giving them a data set from the EcoPreserve. I think it will be more valuable to get them out in the field on their own,” Lathrop said. 

Developing a deer management program with the state of New Jersey is also an important part of the mission of the EcoPreserve, Lathrop said. “We instituted a deer management program to reduce the deer population within the preserve because there has been very little understory regeneration due to deer foraging. We have been harvesting deer for about seven years. We work with a group of vetted, volunteer hunters who hunt on their own. Since we’ve been able to do that successfully in the EcoPreserve, we expanded into more of the area across from the preserve on Busch campus. We are also working with Highland Park and Johnson Park on a regional deer management plan. 

“We have been working with the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife, who run a community-based deer management program. We are part of this regional deer management approach, and so they provide us with guidance. As part of that project, we work with students to survey the deer and look at population numbers. This past winter we did our first drone thermal infrared survey for deer numbers. Wherever we can we try to integrate students into the monitoring,” Lathrop said.

Prescribed burning in the meadows was another project they had planned to undertake with the state and students, Lathrop said, as a way to maintain some of the meadows in the preserve. Lathrop said, “We have gotten permission to burn from the university, we are now just trying to figure out the timing. A graduate student was working on prescribed fire we planned to do in mid-March, but then the COVID-19 pandemic began so we had to cancel that. She is currently looking at alternative dates.”

The idea behind forced burning, Lathrop said, is based on “the idea that within this area of forest there are some remnant meadows that add habitat diversity to the larger property. One of the ways to keep the meadow as meadow is to try to reduce forest succession processes by either mowing it or burning it occasionally. We have burned it in the past. To conduct the burning, we work with the N.J. Forest Fire Service with whom we have a partnership. The students develop the burn plans, and then we also monitor post burn, so we use this opportunity as another teaching tool. 

“The state is very interested in this burn project because while they conduct the burning, they don’t do a lot of monitoring after burns. Also, this is the only location that we burn so close to New Brunswick, so it’s a great project for students, whether for graduate student theses or undergraduate student projects.”

Rutgers students aren’t the only students in New Jersey who benefit from and learn in the EcoPreserve. Lathrop said he also works with students from other New Jersey schools. “Stockton University down in the Pinelands has a sizeable amount of forest and they have had an active program in forest management and use it as a teaching tool,” Lathrop said. “We talked about teaming with them as well as some of the community colleges as well. Raritan Valley has done work on their campus and other forest lands around central N.J.”

He also said younger students, such as 4-H groups, come to the preserve as volunteers, and so the preserve also helps instill in all of these students of various ages both the idea that the EcoPreserve is their resource, and the importance of giving back to the state.

Many members of the public also enjoy exploring the preserve, which Lathrop said he and his students can now measure. “We recently installed a series of trail counters. It was really interesting to see the usage during last spring. As March 2020 began people started flocking to the outdoors and we could see the numbers on the weekends go up and up. But then we had to close the preserve when COVID-19 really ramped up and stay at home orders were enacted. Then we saw the numbers plummet – they didn’t zero out because people still went there. When we reopened, we could see the numbers of visitors skyrocketed.” 

Helping move New Jersey and Rutgers closer to carbon neutrality is another way Lathrop and the EcoPreserve give back to the state and the university. “As part of the broader initiative toward carbon neutrality at the university, I am co-chairing one of the working groups studying land use and offsets. We are looking at all of Rutgers properties. Rutgers owns over 1000 acres or more of forest land, so we are looking at Rutgers-owned forests including the EcoPreserve, Hutcheson Memorial Forest, Helyar Woods, as well as other properties Rutgers owns around the state. These forests serve as storehouses for carbon, and we are thinking about how we can increase their capacity to store additional carbon and how we can use the university’s forests as a way to enhance carbon storage from a research and teaching perspective. So, we are using the campus as a teaching tool to try out various approaches, either afforestation or forest management of existing forestlands to enhance carbon sequestration. The state has a program of funding and so we have this nascent group talking about applying for research funding from the state to use toward this effort as a research activity as well as teaching.” 

Beyond New Jersey, the EcoPreserve recently became part of a current effort led by Smithsonian Institution to understand mammals in the U.S. The EcoPreserve was the only site in New Jersey the Smithsonian chose to include in its project called Snapshot USA

Coyote caught on a trail cam at the EcoPreserve for Snapshot USA.
Photo: Richard Lathrop

“The Smithsonian wanted to find a location in all 50 states and monitor them with motion detectors, what are called trail cams. They chose the EcoPreserve as their site in New Jersey. So we set out a network of trail cams through the preserve and ran them for three months. I had students come help set up the cameras, download the data, look through all of the thousands of photos to monitor all the wildlife out there. We got shots of coyote family groups coming down to the brook, drinking from the brook, probably a dozen other different mammal species. That data will be included in a research paper looking at the trends they found across all fifty states.”

To visit the EcoPreserve, maps and other detailed information is available on the website.