Natural Cemetary Serves as Bird Habitat

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Tompkins Weekly 1-6-14

By Joel Rabinowitz

By now many local residents know of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, where loved ones are given a natural return to the earth in plain pine boxes or in shrouds. But Greensprings has an additional mission—to manage and restore the natural habitat.

When Greensprings opened in 2006, it was among a handful of cemeteries in the vanguard of the green burial movement in the U.S., part of a growing trend within the so-called death-care industry to provide more natural, personal and spiritual alternatives to the way we’ve handled funerals and burials. An important aspect of this movement is the environment in which such a cemetery operates. Land preservation and restoration are critical goals promoted by the Green Burial Council, an organization offering certification, standards and best practices to green cemeteries.

Located in Newfield in the southwest corner of Tompkins County, the Greensprings property comprises 100 acres, mostly meadows, which are almost completely surounded by forest lands, including Cornell’s vast Arnot Forest.  At the edges of the property, the forest is encroaching in the form of young trees or saplings, creating a park-like feel in places. While the land has not been farmed for decades, it has been mowed, which has preserved grassland. It turns out that such nonagricultural open spaces are increasingly rare in the rural parts of the state, where less productive farmland has often returned to forest.

Led by Lance Ebel, who developed an environmental management plan for Greensprings in 2012, the cemetery managers discovered funding for active conservation efforts through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In March, Greensprings was awarded a four-year contract by NRCS to “develop and maintain grassland habitat as part of an upland bird habitat.” The conservation plan was designed for Greensprings by Patrick Barry, NRCS district conservationist.

According to the plan, songbird species that will, or might, benefit from the improved grassland habitat include bobolink, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, upland sandpiper and short-eared owl. Greensprings is already home for bobolinks, with several pairs observed nesting this year in one of the burial grounds. The rare grasshopper sparrow has been spotted in meadows in nearby Arnot Forest. The eastern meadowlark is a species on the decline in the northeast due to disappearing habitat; it needs at least 30 acres of contiguous grassland to thrive and nest.

The NRCS contract was awarded for 49 acres of the Greensprings property, excluding the burial grounds. The conservation plan involves cutting the young trees and saplings in the contract a creage to create more unimpeded grassland, then mowing the contract acres. Greensprings caretaker Sam Hernandez managed the treecutting and brush-removal work, and Lance Ebel, of Newleaf Environmental LLC, did the mowing.

For 2014, the NRCS contract calls for the installation of birdhouses and mowing of one third of the contract acreage for “early successional habitat development and management.” Mowing will continue on each of the remaining thirds of the acreage in the third and fourth years of the contract. Going forward, both Barry and Ebel recommend that Greensprings plant a variety of native warm-season grasses, which will provide good nesting habitat for birds that depend on open spaces.

Greensprings’ efforts to create good bird habitat are underscored by its partnership with the Spring Field Ornithology (SFO) class offered each year by Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology and taught by Professor Stephen Kress. For many years the field-trip sections of the class have visited Arnot Forest on weekends in mid-May. In 2011, Kress asked if some of the field sections could stage their Arnot Forest field trips from Greensprings, using Greensprings for lunch breaks and other needs. As director of Greensprings and a bird enthusiast, I was delighted to agree to this proposal.

My wife and I were enrolled in the SFO class this year and were able to experience the Greensprings/Arnot Forest field trip firsthand. We were part of the group led by Kress, and he decided to linger on the Greensprings property before taking the group into Arnot Forest. Greensprings is blessed with an abundance of birdsevery spring—both migrating through (like white-crowned sparrows) and nesting (bobolink, eastern towhees, brown thrashers and indigo buntings, to name but a few)—and its relatively open spaces make for easy bird viewing. Our caretaker and his wife cooperated by setting up an area of bird feeders.

We expect that the Greensprings-SFO partnership will continue, and with the help of our grassland restoration work, the bird habitat at the cemetery will only get better.

Joel Rabinowitz is executive director of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve.

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