A pair of determined women turn over a new leaf for what is now called Hepburn Woods.
By Mary Jo Patterson
The forest preserve was dying, and it hurt just to look at it.
Native trees had stopped reproducing. Mayapple, trillium, foamflower and other wildflowers had vanished. Thick ropes of wisteria and oriental bittersweet strangled trees. The only things flourishing were destructive plant invaders—Norway maples, garlic mustard and Japanese stilt grass—and deer, whose constant browsing killed any hope of regeneration.
The sight pained Sara Webb, professor of biology and director of the Drew Forest Preserve—the 45-acre area at the southwest corner of campus—who uses the woods to teach forest ecology and conduct research. “I often thought about how to rescue it,” she says. It also pained Christine Hepburn, an environmental activist who lived on the edge of the preserve with her husband and son. “I loved those woods,” Hepburn says. “I raised my baby there. To me, they were not Drew’s woods. They were ours.”
A chance encounter between the two women grew into a shared resolve to rescue the preserve. Today, thanks to a $155,000 gift from Hepburn, plus donated labor and materials from the New Jersey Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, restoration of 30 acres is underway. Hepburn’s donation financed construction of a 10-foot-high deer fence around part of the woods and the adjoining Zuck Arboretum. Last April, volunteers planted 1,300 baby trees and shrubs.
Six weeks later Hepburn walked into the cleared portion of the preserve, renamed the Hepburn Woods. Tiny tree and shrub seedlings—grown by inmates at Bayside State Prison in South Jersey—dotted the ground. “I was in tears, just to think, oaks will grow here again,” says Hepburn, who moved from Madison to Manhattan in 2009. “It’s going to be so rich in birds. It’s exciting.”
The project has a long backstory. Hepburn’s chapter starts in 1994, when she and husband Ken Martin, a pharmaceutical executive, moved to Madison. “I’m a woods person,” says Hepburn, who grew up in Bucks County, Pa. “We couldn’t find woods in Madison initially, so I dragged my husband off to Mendham Township. He couldn’t stand it out there. One day he came home from a bike ride and said, ‘Chris, I saw the perfect house for sale. It’s in Madison, and it’s got woods.’”
The house, set on 1.6 acres off Glenwild Road, had belonged to Florence and Robert Zuck, former botany professors at Drew. (When they retired in 1980, Drew named the Zuck Arboretum in their honor.) “I met Mrs. Zuck, and walked through her gardens with her. I barely knew a rose from a marigold, but I told her I loved nature and the woods,” Hepburn says.
Webb joined the Drew faculty in 1986. “From day one I have wanted to protect this forest,” she says. One year, with students, she erected a small deer exclosure as a demonstration project. After two years baby trees sprouted inside, although neither shrubs nor ferns nor wildflowers reappeared. Another experiment involved removing Norway maples. The trees, introduced from Europe during the 1700s, destroy woodland by pushing out native plant species. Hepburn was home when the clearing started. “Suddenly there were chainsaws in my woods. I was hysterical, crying.” She called the university, which sent Webb over. As time passed, a friendship developed. Hepburn, meanwhile, complained to Drew about the state of the woods. “They’d throw up their hands. They’d say, ‘We’re a university, not a conservancy,’” she says.
In 2008 Hepburn suggested Webb contact the New Jersey Audubon Society, which—through a partnership with the federal fish and wildlife agency—had helped her restore wildlife habitat on land she owned in Hardwick, N.J. Both partners were eager to help restore the preserve, but on one condition. “Without a deer control fence, there was no point in planting anything,” says Audubon land steward John Parke.
“That’s when Chris came to the rescue,” says Webb. “She has really been an angel. The forest is going to take some time. But she’s left a great environmental legacy.”
Read more about campus nature in “Four Seasons at Drew.”
While the oak is near and dear to Drew’s identity, other trees are actually far more prevalent on campus. Here are the dominant species in order of abundance.
- American beech
- Sugar maple (native)
- Norway maple (invasive)
- The oaks: black, white, red and pin