Monday, May 12, 2014

Stroud Preserve

In the Mid-Atlantic States we have a have a tradition of saving land - a lot of it. National forests and parks, state parks and forests, state/county wildlife management areas, natural areas, and county park lands put a lot of property into conservation management and permanent protection. There are all different ways of preserving land and I've posted several land trust properties in this blog, but Natural Lands Trust in Pennsylvania is a model program.

Conservation land trusts function as private-public partnerships with unique missions of conserving landscapes, often in a race against development or industrial blight - sadly a common fate for open lands in this region. NLT has been quietly and most effectively saving land for over sixty years and all of it is managed for passive nature recreation, conservation value, watershed health, and biodiversity. This fine spring day, my friend and grad school colleague Sally and I  decided to visit the Stroud Preserve.

Hillsides of Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica cascade into the Brandywine Valley below.

The Stroud Preserve encompasses what landscape ecologists like to call a mosaic of ecologically important areas on almost 600 acres of former agricultural pastureland and eastern deciduous forest, some of which is riparian and exposed to frequent flooding of the East Branch of the Brandywine River. On this day I had to take several detours to get there (getting lost in the process) as many roads in and around the area were closed due to recent flash floods, the most severe the area has seen in decades that were higher and swifter than the flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy! There is little debate here and throughout the Northeast that intense flooding events are becoming more frequent.

An historic Quaker farm nestles quietly in the glen.

Though some of pastureland is missing its livestock these days, the area is actively managed as Eastern prairie-meadow, an endangered habitat type. Over the years with proper restorative techniques, the meadow lands have returned - complete with bobolinks (!) a prairie bird once common in our area and now is reestablishing where meadow and fields are restored. Twenty years ago we never saw these birds, now they are becoming a sight we look forward to each spring through summer. Other areas that manage for Eastern prairie meadow habitat include  Middle Creek WMA northeast of here, where I love to see tundra swans in winter. In addition to land trust programs, many farmers across Pennsylvania manage grassland habitat either as conservation buffers or as rotational grazing pastures as part of their conservation plans or protected easement programs. It's now becoming 'cool' to grow native meadowland! 

Sally doesn't have to bend very low to sweep her hand through the bluebells which seem to reach up to greet her.

As a landscape mosaic, the Stroud Preserve also includes the sustainable agricultural activities, important to conserve culturally as well as economically in an area where small scale farming (under two hundred acres) is vitally important. Conservationists realize the biological value of healthy farmlands, especially the carbon absorbing properties of deep loam with high organic matter content. This is the signature of healthy farmland: biologically active soils, managed carefully through rotational grazing, composting, and conservation tillage techniques. These well managed soils can be several feet thick! The ability of biologic soils to absorb and store carbon is amazing and is being promoted as a strategy for reclaiming atmospheric carbon that contributes to global warming. Thinking of agricultural soils as carbon sinks rather than emitters of carbon is a new idea with conservationists, but farmers have known about it for a long, long time.

Wood violet, viola odorata

The woodlands were alight with spring emphemerals, wildflowers that quickly bloom as soon as the soil and air temperatures warm. Once emerging tree canopies shade the forest floor these wildflowers disappear. The time to view them is short, and for many this calls for an annual spring pilgrimage to  a favorite woodland. Not all the flowers we saw were native, but all were beautiful nonetheless. This land has been long settled by Europeans, some arriving in the early 1600s. Arriving with them, and becoming naturalized over time are the wood violets, filling all the voids of empty forest floor with stout foliage and delicate fringed (or bearded) flowers. Their deep chubby roots and aggressive growth sometimes crowd out native plants, but for soil-holding ability on slopes and near roads, they can't be beat.

Box elder flowers early in spring and displays tiny winged seeds.

This visit in early May occurred just after a major flooding event and many of the riparian woods trails were muddy. Acres of tree tubes protecting young trees inside from deer browsing, acted as shields and grate, against almost four feet of swift floodwaters overspilling the banks of the Brandywine. The tubes caught all manner of vegetative debris and were pushed hard over by the current. 

Like much of our region, the signature of man isn't far removed, even and especially in protected lands around one of America's earliest settled areas. Old orchard trees still cast blossoms from a deep woods that was once open land and unkempt hedgerows that grew up around old fences, sprouted from seeds that birds and squirrels dropped  from rail or post perches serve as linear woods our across the open meadows. Wagon tracts, now hiking trails through the forest, and even the forest itself are artifacts from the land being cleared several times over hundreds of years.

A wild crab apple tree brightened the trail as a soft rain began to fall.

Staghorn sumac leaves burst from buds.

Native dogwood on a ridge-side trail. 

A handsome tree swallow, just back from wintering in Mexico has already set up housekeeping in a box.
Our day was long and lingering, breezy and at times chilly! Between breaks of sun, a brisk north wind, peppered by mists and drizzle, but we weren't detered! We walked the perimeter trails at a leisurely pace, and spent a good hour on the concrete bridge over the river before saying our goodbyes. I'm looking forward to coming back in a month or so and looking for those bobolinks!

The Natural Lands Trust is a large (and growing) land conservation organization responsible for Stroud Preserve and many other natural areas now permanently preserved.

The Stroud Water Research Center maintains an active program of scientific study and educational opportunities in the preserve.

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