By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Several years of toil by nature-loving volunteers was undone in Fair Haven last month when borough employees mistakenly destroyed some 150 baby trees, officials said Monday.
Sometime last month, public works employees, while doing routine maintenance at the Fair Haven Fields Natural Area, errantly bushwhacked about 150 small trees planted to protect the area from Asian Bittersweet vines, an invasive species that had destroyed at least 20 percent of the area’s plant life, said volunteer Richard Magovern.
Now, what was once a well-fortified thicket of small trees is an open patch of green, a visible chink in the armor used to fight off an invasive adversary.
As the borough government continues to put attention on its prized “recreation Mecca” that caters to cleats-wearing kids and lawn chair-toting parents, a number of volunteers whose work in the adjoining woodland was set back are asking the council to come up with some funds to undo the damage.
Following a presentation by local officials on a plan to move into the second phase of Fair Haven Fields‘ upgrade plan Monday night, two men who’ve worked at the fields’ natural area urged the council to funnel some of the money to be used on the fields toward that stretch of now-cleared land.
Although council members acknowledged what they termed a tragic accident at the preserve, potential incoming funds from Monmouth County and the state won’t be earmarked for the area’s restoration, they said. Instead, the borough will follow through on a long-term action plan utilizing its own money, Mayor Mike Halfacre said.
“It was a mistake,” Halfacre said. “We’re going to make that right.”
Volunteers are worried that the council’s verbal assurance won’t be enough. Going without a commitment from the borough to fix the mistake is an “exercise in frustration,” said Dick Fuller, one of a group of volunteers who’ve spent hundreds of hours taking steps to protect the area.
Magovern and Fuller both say they accept that the clear-cutting was an accident.
But when the council listened to a plan to apply for $250,000 in a matching Monmouth County Open Spaces grant to add a baseball field and expand the existing fields and walking paths at Fair Haven Fields, Fuller and Magovern couldn’t stand by and let the mistake go unnoticed.
If the borough wins the full $250,000, it would match the award, although $195,000 of it would come from a low-interest Green Acres loan. The remaining $55,000 would be covered by the borough’s capital budget, Halfacre said.
The borough would be better served, Fuller said, if the grant application included funding for tree restoration at the natural area.
For the last few years, Fuller and Magovern, along with a team of volunteers working in their free time and on a shoestring budget, have put in hundreds of hours to clear out the invasive vines and planted hundreds of small trees to combat the deadly brush.
“Large invasives haven’t been addressed” by the borough, Fuller said. “What has been done there has been done on the cheap.”
With funding piecemeal, through various line items in the borough’s budget, Fuller said if a portion of the grant money doesn’t go toward the nature preserve, the destruction by the strangling vines will continue.
“If that’s going to be in the application, then I say thank you,” Magovern said. “If not, then I think you owe an apology to a lot of the people who volunteered their time.”
Halfacre cautioned Fuller and Magovern not to confuse an accident with the grant application. Through line items for the parks and recreation, public works and administrative departments in the borough budget, he said the nature area does and will receive attention to continue its protection.
“The long-term natural area plan is in place,” Halfacre said. “I don’t want anyone to get the idea that the natural area is abused or neglected. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Fuller said while regular maintenance at the area has helped, he believes more needs to be done now that the damage is done.
“I’m not sure that the point was well-conveyed that there is a distinction between maintenance and restoration,” he said. “Maintenance has improved greatly, but their resources for restoration just don’t match the problem.”