The Sourlands – A Place of Refuge at Princeton’s Doorstep

By Linda Arntzenius

When people are having the isn’t-Princeton-a-great-place-to-live conversation, the town’s proximity to Manhattan and downtown Philadelphia often tops the best features list. And while it’s a boon to hop on a train for an evening at Lincoln Center or take visitors to see the Liberty Bell, for many locals one of the biggest benefits of living in this historic town is easy access to the nature that surrounds it.

Princeton sits between the Delaware and Raritan Rivers and boasts numerous places for outdoor recreation including The Institute Woods, Mountain Lakes Preserve and the towpath of the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

And then there’s the Sourlands. Right smack in the middle of central New Jersey, the country’s most populous state, a rare ecosystem of forest, wetlands, and grasslands not only supports plant and animal life, it offers hikers, birdwatchers and bicyclists an escape to the great outdoors. The region has been called “central New Jersey’s last great wilderness” and is the largest contiguous forest between the Pine Barrens and the New Jersey Highlands.

Rich in storied history, the Sourlands served as a refuge for George Washington and his troops and sheltered escaped slaves on their route to freedom via the Underground Railroad. It’s seen bootleggers and moonshiners and featured in one of the nation’s most notorious kidnappings and murders.

SOURLAND OR SOURLANDS?

But let’s start with the name. Is it Sourlands or Sourland, Sourland Mountain or Sourland Mountains? According to Hopewell resident Tom Seessel of the Sourland Conservancy, Sourlands is the name for the region and Sourland singular names the highest point in the area above sea-level, Sourland Mountain. “There’s no official explanation for the name but it probably goes back to the first Dutch settlers,” he says. It might be derived from “sorrel-land,” describing reddish-brown soil or from the 17th century Dutch “sauer landt” indicating land ill-suited to farming. Even today, the area remains relatively undeveloped because of a combination of hard rock, clay soil, steep slopes and wetlands in which it is difficult to install the wells and septic systems that are necessary for human habitat.

Whatever you want to call it, the region is a place of renewal and inspiration. “The Japanese have an expression, ‘shinrin yoku,’ for the sense of wellbeing that people experience when they enter woodlands,” says local environmentalist Jim Amon.

These woodlands give visitors the feeling of being away from it all even though the trails of the Sourland Mountain Preserve off East Mountain Road in Hillsborough is a short drive from Princeton.

Like some of the boulders strewn on its wooded slopes, this area performs a balancing act of plant and animal life. At first all you see of the boulders is their size; a closer look reveals spatterings of lichen and moist crevices. Weather-worn surfaces hold rain puddles that are a perfect habitat for amphibians. These vernal pools offer refuge from fish that would eat young newts and tadpoles. If you are patient, you may see spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and the gray treefrogs. In spring you’ll find trout lilies, wood anemones, and wild ginseng.

Boulders make for perfect lunch tables or for stretching out in the sun. At different places along these trails you’ll meet birdwatchers, people hiking with their dogs, children scrambling over boulders, examining pools, and mountain bikers defying the terrain and sometimes gravity. “The animal life, the ecological balance, gives us a place for recreation,” says Rush Holt in a recent documentary film The Sourlands: A New Jersey Treasure, produced for the Sourland Conservancy. “It’s wonderful for biking, for birding, for getting out and enjoying the tranquility, and some of the rich history of the area as well.”

Besides amphibians, the 90-square-mile wooded area between Princeton, Hillsborough, Flemington and Lambertville is home to threatened and endangered animals, including the pileated woodpecker, wood turtle, bobolink, Cooper’s hawk, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, upland sandpiper, and deep-woods birds such as scarlet tanagers and barred owls. Elusive bobcats, coyotes and red and gray foxes hunt at the edges of its meadows.

Migratory birds from Central America, as well as a number of other rare or endangered species, rely on this ecosystem – birds that fly between South America and the Arctic as well as forest birds migrating between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

According to the Sourland Conservancy, an accident of geology saved the region from suburban sprawl. Sourland Mountain, the highest point in the area, is formed of a hard igneous rock. Hiking trails wind around great boulders of the stuff. At just 568 feet above sea-level, Sourland Mountain is less of a mountain and more of a ridge running 17 miles from the Delaware River by Lambertville northeast to Hillsborough.

Over the centuries, dramatic groups of boulders have been given picturesque named like “The Three Brothers,” “The Roaring Rocks,” “Devil’s Half Acre” and “Knitting Betty Rock.” Such names as “Pheasant Hill,” “Pennington Mountain,” “Mount Canoe,” “Baldpate Mountain,” “Strawberry Hill,” “Belle Mountain,” “Goat Hill,” “Mount Rose,” “Rocky Hill,” “Ten Mile Run Mountain,” and “Prospect Hill” speak to the region’s past.

A LITTLE HISTORY

It’s not clear when the first human beings settled here, although it’s thought that Lenni Lenape might have had small villages on the flanks of the Sourland Mountain/ridge for thousands of years. There’s evidence indicating the Delaware River supported a settlement at the southern foot of the mountain where Lambertville sits today. They hunted deer and squirrels in the woods and their trails formed the basis for local roads. If you’ve driven from Princeton to Lambertville on County Route 518, you have crossed The Sourlands.

But by about 1800, Native Americans had given way to incoming Europeans. In the first half of the 19th century as New Jersey gradually passed laws prohibiting slavery, the Sourlands played a part in providing hiding places for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.

In 1929, Charles Lindbergh built his secluded home “Highfields” here, the site of the infamous kidnapping and murder of his baby son in March 1932. Lindbergh it is said had spotted the wooded area from the air. He and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh had chosen the region precisely because of its isolation and inaccessibility, a characteristic that had also drawn Prohibition-era moonshiners and their illicit stills.

The Lindbergh’s former home on Province Line Road is now a residential youth rehabilitation center. Nearby on Province Line Road, overlooking the Hopewell Valley below, is the 1752 Hunt House, where General Washington gathered his military leaders in the summer of 1778 and his troops encamped before further engagements with the British. Now a private residence, Hunt House is not open to the public.

Besides Lindbergh, other notables who have been attracted to the area, at least for a time, include playwrights Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, and painter George Bellows. At least one signer of the Declaration of Independence, patriot John Hart, hid from the British here.

Since 2003, the Annual Sourland Music Festival has been preserving some of the region’s colorful history, also documented in New Jersey’s Sourland Mountain by T.J. Luce, published by the Sourland Planning Commission. Mr. Luce describes a rich rocky mountain culture with numerous tales of “Shady Characters,” as one of his chapters is titled. A memorable story tells of an illegal still producing run-off so potent that that pigs drinking downstream became tipsy as a result.

CONTEMPORARY THREATS

Continually under threat from new development on all sides, only about 40 percent of The Sourlands is currently preserved; the rest is either already developed or subject to future development, which would present even more stress to the ecosystem and the water supply. In 1986, the Sourland Conservancy was formed as the “Sourland Regional Citizens Planning Council,” with the aim of advocating for this special region on Princeton’s doorstep.

Currently, the most pressing danger is the PennEast pipeline, says Seessel. “While the threat from development is always there, it has declined with the cooling of the economy and the fact that several counties have regulated lot sizes, but the pipeline would cut right through the heart of The Sourlands; it would fragment what has been called an ‘island of biodiversity in a sea of encroaching sprawl.’”

PennEast, a division of UGI Industries, proposes an ultra-high-pressure natural gas transmission line and, according to the Conservancy, threatens to invoke eminent domain with landowners to achieve its end. To date, 14 municipalities have adopted resolutions opposing the pipeline. “The impacts of the PennEast pipeline, should it be approved by FERC, would be devastating on the fragile ecosystems of the Sourland Mountain region,” says Caroline Katmann, the Conservancy’s executive director, who pulls no punches when she describes the proposal as “death to one of New Jersey’s greatest treasures.”

DEADLY DEER

Also threatening the future of the forest is the overpopulation of White-Tailed Deer. “It’s a challenge to explain to the public just how an environmentalist can be in favor of culling these beautiful animals but they are the second biggest threat to the forest,” says Seessel. “People rarely consider the detrimental effect they have on the forest. It is the Conservancy’s challenge to educate the public on this.”

In some areas of the Sourlands, the deer population is 160 per square mile, about 10 times the sustainable level. “This is a critical issue,” says environmentalist Jim Amon, former Executive Director of the D&R Canal Commission and most recently with the D&R Greenway Land Trust. “The deer are so plentiful that in order to survive they must eat every new seedling that appears; as a result the forest is wide open to alien invasive species such as butterfly bush, Japanese honeysuckle, and Japanese barberry. That’s a problem for native wildlife which evolved alongside and rely on native plants. Invasives have different leafing-out and blooming cycles from the native flora that is so important, especially for insects and migrating birds. Imagine being a one and a half ounce bird flying thousands of miles and needing nutrition and not being able to find it because it’s been destroyed by deer.”

As Amon explains, “If you visit the forest in fall, what you see are plants with leaves on them untouched by any insect. This isn’t good at all. Canopy and shrub layers that are being destroyed by the deer discourage invasives that come from people’s gardens. Some of these plants are quite attractive but unlike native vines such as poison ivy, for example, which attach to trees by tendrils, these invasives tend to encircle tree trunks and choke off the transport of nutrients from root to branch, thereby killing the tree.”

As a solution, Amon suggests making it easier for hunters to take more deer from the forest. As it is now regulated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the aim is maximize the number of licenses sold rather than deer control. Visitors to the Sourland Conservancy website may be surprised to find “The Venison Connection,” suggesting consumption of more deer meat.

Small parks and access points make the Sourlands popular for hiking, mountain biking, hunting, and bird watching. Rock climbing is permitted in some parks such as Sourland Mountain Preserve. The largest park is the Sourland Mountain Preserve in Somerset County. Nearby is the Sourland Mountain Nature Preserve, located in Hunterdon County.

For more information on the pipeline, visit: www.stoppenneast.org.

For the Sourlands Conservancy,visit: www.sourland.org.

For a documentary film on the region, see Jared Flesher’s Sourlands: www.sourlands.com.