A Rider legacy blooms in marsh

By Lauren Lavelle

A beaver dam sits in the calming waters as electrical power lines surge in the background. The Abbott Marshlands provides the surrounding community with many benefits, purifying the nearby water, providing wildlife habitats, controlling floods and offering recreational activities.
A beaver dam sits in the calming waters as electrical power lines surge in the background. The Abbott Marshlands provides the surrounding community with many benefits, purifying the nearby water, providing wildlife habitats, controlling floods and offering recreational activities.

Fallen leaves crunch and birds whistle as the sound of bustling traffic is almost replaced by the bliss of rushing waters and the slight whispers of wildlife. But if you raise your eyes, you still see insults to this landscape: power lines, a PSEG plant with tall smokestacks, elevated interstate highways.

As retired Rider biology professor Mary Leck guides a group through mazes of trees and colorful landscapes, her prominent walking stick in hand, she explains the significance of the improbable preservation of this area six miles from the Lawrenceville campus.

“The Abbott Marshlands provides us with many services, including purifying water by removing fertilizers and other materials, groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat, flood control, recreation opportunities like fishing and canoeing, and for human aesthetic considerations — peaceful connecting space with nature,” said Leck. “Green, birdsong and water, after all, can reduce stress.”

Despite the beautiful natural scenery, the Abbott Marshlands is hemmed in by technology and traffic. That the under-appreciated 3,000 acres has been preserved at all seems a miracle.

Rider has played a supporting role in the preservation since the 1970s.

“Drs. Robert Simpson and Dennis Whigham, colleagues at Rider, began ecological studies in 1973 of water quality and plant productivity,” said Leck. “These and other studies helped us understand the ecology of tidal freshwater wetlands, such as the Abbott Marshlands, and helped bring attention to their importance. These studies inform what the nature center teaches students of all ages.”

Leck, a botanist, today serves as a member of the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands and leads student cleanups, including one in the fall of 2014 by a biology class.

An avid nature lover since early childhood, she remains dedicated to her passion and provides hikers with endless knowledge as she treks down to Spring Lake to examine rare plant specimens.

“I am particularly fond of the areas where there is a remarkable progression of plant growth beginning in late March,” said Leck. “Seedings, my special ‘friends,’ appear as if by magic in the tidal mud that may be covered by plants 10 or more feet tall by the end of August.  The particularly tall ones include wild rice, giant ragweed and water hemp. The ebb and flow of the tides make for dynamic and diverse plant communities.”

She notes that habitat disturbances were caused by structures built at the marsh.

“These include the D&R Canal and railroad, as well as the high-tension tower footings, a gas pipeline, a landfill dumping and most recently the highway complex. The canal and railroad altered the flow of water across the landscape to a single entry/exit point via Crosswicks Creek at Bordentown.”

These issues have caused the growth of certain plants that can potentially harm the overall ecosystem.

“Currently, disturbances have provided places where an invasive form of Phragmites australis has become dominant, significantly reducing the richness of plant communities,” she said.

Regardless of the current physical state of the marshlands, Leck still stresses the history of the marsh and hopes students remain interested in all it has to offer. In order to guide the education of this underrated land, Mercer County’s Tulpehaking Nature Center was established in October 2014, nearly 80 years after the first preservation efforts.

Located in Hamilton within the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark, the nature center promotes the exploration of the natural history of the marshlands.

One can really get a feel for the pureness of the marshlands simply by setting foot in the small, ranch-style building.

“The Tulpehaking Nature Center is an important educational resource for local families and schools,” said Leck. “TNC programs provide many kinds of opportunities, including: learning about the importance of wetlands and open space through hands-on experiences, learning about the rich diversity of plants and animals and learning about the cultural and archaeological legacy of the area.”

When asked about the future of the Abbott Marshlands, Leck attempts to stay positive but cannot help but consider the negative aspects.

“With my optimistic hat on: There is now an Abbott Marshlands Council made up of partners, land owners and other interested organizations, whose mission it is to implement the Cooperative Stewardship Plan: Hamilton – Trenton – Bordentown Marsh – 2010,” said Leck. “It’s important to have this planning aspect for the future.

“With my not-so-optimistic hat on: I worry that spread of the invasive genotype of Phragmites australis will have significant negative impact by replacing large areas of diverse plant communities with a much impoverished one.  I worry, too, that government will gut the clean water legislation that has offered protection since the 1970s.”

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