The eight miles of trails at the Schiff Nature Preserve in Mendham Township are generous with beautiful vistas, challenging terrain, and a variety of natural habitats. The preserve, which encompasses over 300 acres in this historic river valley, has a history as vast and expansive as its terrain. Knowing the stories of those who walked these trails before - from Native Americans, to Revolutionary War heroes, to Norman Rockwell and the Boy Scouts of America - will embellish your trip. And visitors can be confident in the stewardship at the preserve that will usher it into the future.
The preserve is privately owned by the Schiff Natural Lands Trust, which was founded after a long battle to preserve the 500-acre former headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America. Training films for the Boy Scouts were made in a studio on the property, and Norman Rockwell is said to have been a visitor, using the camp as the inspiration for many of his scouting illustrations. Long before, George Washington is believed to have traveled with Revolutionary War troops along the "Old Colonial Road" that passes directly through the preserve, where Indian artifacts have also been found. The entire tract is located within the boundaries of the Ralston Historic District, listed on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. This is an area where some of the first Morris County settlement occurred around 1750. At least one 19th century estate once occupied these lands, to which the remains of stone foundations and cellar holes attest.
In 1931, funds to purchase the 500-acre tract were donated to the Boy Scouts of America by the family of Mortimer Schiff, who had served as the National President of the organization in the early part of the 1900s. The land was used as Boy Scout national headquarters until 1979, when it was sold to AT&T. Public outcry from a group of concerned citizens stopped the development proposed by AT&T. However, after a long legal battle and many complications, 186 acres of the Schiff land were ultimately developed into residential housing, which now borders the preserve on three sides. The Schiff Natural Lands Trust, Inc, established in 1984, was able to retain the remainder, preserving it permanently as open space. Ecological education is an important part of the nature preserve's mission. The first (and only) full-time staff member was recently hired, and over the past year, public educational programs have been offered on a regular basis.
The other, much more complex component of the mission is to restore and preserve the land in its natural state. The challenge is how to maintain a precarious ecological balance in a small space surrounded by development pressures. Land stewardship focuses on maintaining natural habitats for species across a wide variety of ecosystems. These ecosystems are in an ever-changing dynamic, called succession, which when unaltered by man, occurs naturally. Chemical runoff, invasive species, non-native plants and insects, and the lack of contiguous open space, where the natural flux of succession occurs over space and time, all affect ecological balance. Land fragmentation causes the proliferation of "fringe" forests, where it is impossible for the natural processes of predator and prey, growth of new saplings to replace older trees, and development of a healthy shrub understory for birds and other critters, to occur. Because fragmented lands can't support the needs of a healthy forest environment, deer overpopulation, non-native species infiltration, and the ultimate destruction of the habitat soon follow.
Preservation is an active process, and involves much more than simply leaving the land alone. Schiff employs aggressive land management practices to control the invasive non-native species that already have a foothold, and to establish new niche habitats. Prescribed burns, removal of invasive species, and deer culling are some of the methods by which the preserve seeks to re-establish local ecosystems and minimize the detrimental effects of the impact from surrounding development.
While many of the habitat changes may not be obvious to the uneducated eye, the physical impact of man-made structures is quite apparent. The Trust must decide whether to remove or re-use some of the lodges, cabins and wagon trails from the Boy Scout era. And the environmental impact of the Brookrace development bordering the preserve will emerge over time, as runoff from the expansive green lawns and invasive landscaping species re-infiltrate the Preserve's sensitive environment.
By introducing visitors to the preserve, and teaching them about the environment, the staff at Schiff hopes to ignite a passion for preservation and conservation. Allowing visitors to see, first-hand, flourishing animal and plant life in diverse and striking settings, the Schiff Nature Preserve is an educational and recreational resource not to be overlooked.
A meadow, a wetlands bog, and a mature upland forest are highlights that the hiker at Schiff will traverse. The variety of animals that these lands support is extensive, including coyote, bear, raptors, songbirds, fox, and turkey. Plant species include tulip popular, ash, birch, beech, red cedar, dogwood, sugar maple, and sassafras trees along with mountain laurel and hemlock, native wildflowers, grasses, and ferns.
Follow the footpath from the kiosk to the dirt roadway above the nature center. Go right a few feet and turn left onto the footpath leading up and into the woods. Notice that the woods are free of understory, destroyed by an over-population of deer, and allowing invasive plant species to proliferate.
When this pathway intersects again with the roadway, at the Great Meadow, turn left. The Great Meadow has undergone two prescribed burns, this spring and last. Conducted by the New Jersey Fire Service, the burns reduced the threat of uncontrolled wildfire, helped to control the abundant invasive non-native species, and helped to rejuvenate the natural population, allowing native grasses, to once again grow and thrive.
The dirt road leads to a lean-to, which remains from the Boy Scout days, a picnic table, and the overlook. Along the road to the overlook, notice the abundance of wineberries. These brambles, which do produce delicious edible berries, are an invasive species. There is no safe way to control their proliferation, and they have a strong foothold here. At the lookout, an impressive expanse of forested land is visible. Efforts to complete a greenway through this terrain, connecting Schiff to other expanses of preserved space, are underway.
Hiking up the hill on a strenuous stretch of trail, the invasive "Tree of Heaven" is nondescript, yet a persisten threat to the native plants. The staff has regularly uprooted saplings in an attempt to loosen the tree's foothold, and spot applications of herbicides have also been applied in an attempt to curtail its spread. Still, there are clumps of the tree visible to the right of the trail, on the hillside.
Once at the summit, the trail leads back down to the upper end of the Great Meadow. From here, turn left, and then bear left onto the trail ahead. Notice the evergreen tree saplings planted by the staff to initiate an additional habitat niche not presently found at the preserve. Turn left onto the yellow trail, which will lead to the Revolutionary War marker that indicates that Washington's troops are believed to have passed here on their way to the winter encampment at nearby Jockey Hollow.
Continue until the trail intersects with the Old Colonial Road. Turn right and continue on the Colonial Road, then turn left onto the paved road that will lead to the Dan Beard cabin. This cabin was featured at the 1939 World's Fair. There was a film studio here, a gift to the Boy Scouts from Norman Rockwell and IBM's Thomas Watson, where Boy Scout training films were made.
Follow straight past the cabin. This path will take you to the Woodbadge Lodge, and the remainder of what were Boy Scout's campsites. Any future potential use of these remaining facilities is being weighed against potential impact on the environment. Follow around the camp, and the trail meets with the purple-marked Ann's Trail which winds down the mountain and crosses the Old Colonial Road. Up ahead, is the North Conservation Pond. Watch for amphibians, such as the green frogs in the summer. There are old wood duck breeding boxes as well. Turn back and head left on the Old Colonial Road.
Turn left at the intersection, and head back down through the Great Meadow. There was once a race track, from when the land was an estate property. This area was also where large Boy Scout meetings and events occurred. Today, the staff at Schiff has added bluebird boxes, and has allowed the meadow grasses to grow, both of which provide breeding habitat for native species.
The dirt road turns to the left, leading you past some homes in the Brookrace development, and back to the Schiff Parking area, where the new native woodland garden is being planted.
February, 2020 - The new decade ushers in leadership changes at Schiff Natural Lands Trust, the oversight board for Schiff Nature Preserve, which owns 768 acres of open space throughout the Mendhams and Chester. After serving as president for much of the last decade, Mendham Township resident Alex Battey has stepped down and the board has elected Marissa McDonnell, also of Mendham Township, to take the helm. Battey will continue to serve as a trustee. After being named President in 2013, Battey led Schiff’s transition from a property acquisition phase to an operations focused organization. “Having been very successful in acquiring numerous parcels of land over the course of 15 years that more than doubled the preserve’s original size, Schiff had to come up with an operating model that would allow the trust to manage those parcels and provide stewardship oversight in a sustainable fashion relying on part time staff and volunteers,” said Battey. During his tenure, Battey also reorganized the board to function collaboratively through three operating committees with the chairs of each forming an “Office of the President,” and distributing the decision-making process. “For an all-volunteer board, this creates a more satisfying experience for our trustees who choose to serve on committees based on their talents and interests, and it reduces the burden on any one board member, especially the President,” Battey explained. McDonnell, a trustee since 2017, joined the board shortly after moving to Mendham Township from Washington, D.C. “I met several trustees at an Ice Cream Social they held shortly after we moved here and I was struck by their kindness and dedication to Schiff,” she said. “It was evident that caring for this land and sharing it with others was a high priority that was met through terrific teamwork. I was excited to join such a strong, thoughtful group.” As president, McDonnell plans to lead the board in continuing to strengthen community ties, increasing the membership base, and making ongoing improvements to existing structures, including Wood Badge Lodge, a link to Schiff’s rich history with the Boy Scouts of America. As a pediatrician, McDonnell emphasizes the health benefits that the preserve offers. “I would love to see more people take advantage of Schiff by hiking the trails, enjoying a yoga class or volunteering for stewardship activities. All of these activities have been shown to help reduce blood pressure and stress levels and even to slow aging. It’s very important also that children spend time outside in nature to exercise their bodies as well as their imaginations,” she explained. At the January 23rd, 2020 meeting, the board also elected trustee Bill Sandelands of Mendham Township to replace Battey as chair of the Finance & Administration Committee, and added a new trustee, W. Barry Thomson, formerly of Peapack/Gladstone and now a resident of Williamsburg, MA.
Rounding out the board are trustees Amalia Duarte, John Eade, Joe Gomeringer and Alan Weinstein from Mendham Township; Pat Charney and Janis Slutsky from Mendham Borough; and Ken Rendall and Jeanne Rice from Peapack/Gladstone. While Schiff is tax-exempt, it receives no annual funding from state or federal agencies and relies heavily on membership dues, programs like Summer Nature Program for Kids, and special events like the Schiff Environmental Film Festival and Music in the Woods to raise the funds necessary to manage and protect the preserve for public use.
Located at 339 Pleasant Valley Road, in Mendham Township, the preserve is open dawn-dusk, seven days per week. Trail maps are available at the kiosk near the parking area. The narrow driveway is easy to miss, a few hundred feet from the intersection with Union Schoolhouse Road. There are stone pillars at the end, and a small group of townhouses share the driveway. Continue past the townhouse parking area, and bear to the left. You will wind up and around the side of the mountain, past the staff's homes, and to the parking area.
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