With few staff able to conduct inspections and maintenance, extreme weather eroded the trails and sullied streams, turning a park that was “loved to death” into one that was hostile to hikers and equestrians.
But with some organization, planning and outreach to volunteer organizations, a revitalization has begun to occur.
“Volunteers play an important role in maintaining our rustic trails for all to enjoy, and we appreciate all of their efforts,” Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski said in a release earlier this summer that heralded a group of volunteers from the BASF Corporation headquarters in Florham Park just up N.J. Route 24 in helping restore one trail.
Also this summer, the Student Conservation Association, a nationwide nonprofit group headquartered in Virginia, completed 24 trail rehabilitation projects in five weeks, with 11 more still in progress.
The complaints started building years ago until they reached a crescendo at Union County Parks and Recreation Director Ron Zuber’s office.
“Several years ago, his staff was coming to him and saying, ‘Ron, we’ve got a problem on the reservation. People are complaining,” recalled John Trontis, the special projects coordinator for the county recreation department. “The trails are impassable in many areas. Mud sits, water doesn’t drain. We’re in need of help.
“When Ron received the report, it was overwhelming,” Trontis said during an interview at the reservation. “So, how do you implement it with so few maintenance staff?”
The challenge was that Watchung Reservation had to make drastic changes with a small staff and limited resources.
“It’s not just that it’s the biggest park in Union County, it’s so important for the environmental health as well,” Kowalski said, sitting with Trontis.
The result was the Trails Rehabilitation Plan and Master Plan for Watchung Reservation devised in 2016. The consulting firm CME Associates was commissioned to devise a strategy.
It included decommissioning some of the trails, establishing GPS for the trails and improving signage.
It suggested a “sensory trail,” a wheelchair accessible trail that opened last fall and was given an award for excellence in design by the New Jersey Recreation and Park Association in February.
The sensory trail is a three-tenths of a mile loop considered a “barrier-free” path, including two talking kiosks, a railing and a flattened path. There is a small playground, a pavillion and small raised bed gardens with plants intended for touch, smell and sight. The park even has a small xylophone and drums.
Other initiatives included a database to track problems and work on trails. A geographic information system tracks different problem locations in Watchung.
There is also global positioning satellite, or GPS, tracking on every trail.
“Rather than buying software to automate this reporting system, the county GIS staff incorporated the trails plan into the same Cartegraph software is used for locations of potholes and bridge repairs, shade trees and other county work sites,” a 2018 county report on the rehabilitation plan states.
“The trails were a secret that not everyone else had discovered,” Trontis said. “The trails were loved to death. Nowhere else in Union County is there 2,000 acres together. Nowhere else are there 60 miles of hiking trails — authorized trails — in one place.”
Besides working with the SCA, the Trails Rehabilitation Plan emphasized efforts that could be undertaken by staff, volunteer organizations and youth groups such as the Elizabeth Green Team, which identifies and corrects problem areas in Watchung.
Mark and Mike Popadak, who were hired as part-time staff after the master plan was filed in 2016, have now been hired as full-time employees.
“The National Parks service issued this white paper last year that said, ‘We don’t have anybody to maintain our trails, anymore,’” Trontis said. “As an agency, you’re always told that you have to do more with less. Finally you reach a point where your staff is so depleted and the budget is so depleted that you’re doing less with less.”