Greensprings – Renew, Sustain, Endure

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Tompkins Weekly     11-13-17

By Lynn Leopold

In the global scheme of things, the Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield may seem a very small effort at sustainability, but the land management activities on the 130-acre preserve are fine local examples of planning for the present and the future through green burial and land management for wildlife values.

Since the first priority of the cemetery is to provide natural burials, both today and in future years, maintaining the large burial meadows goes way beyond simply keeping the space mowed for ease of access. In past years, Greensprings has been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the USDA to manipulate parts of the open fields to make them more inviting to grassland birds, particularly those species that are declining in New York state and elsewhere in the northeast.

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Kat Bennett.

The cemetery’s Ecological Advisory Committee has taken on the responsibility for many management projects, such as enhancing bird habitat in the burial areas, removal of invasive tree and shrub species, and in the coming year, enhancing the open areas to encourage pollinating insects.

Anyone who has spent time walking the cemetery lands in summer will know that butterflies seem to thrive there. This was a particularly good year for Monarch butterflies, who were everywhere in evidence throughout the season.

This coming year, Greensprings will be working again with NRCS to improve pollinator habitat. This project could not be more timely, as the reports of the severe decline in flying pollinating insects worldwide is alarming. The world’s major food sources depend on pollinators and without them, civilization could collapse. To help support pollinators of all stripes, spots and colors, Greensprings, with the help from NRCS, will be adding flowering plant species to a section of one of the meadows through planting and seeding. We have a wide variety of bees, flies and butterflies in the open areas throughout the flowering season, so adding more plants that attract the pollinators will enhance their chances of survival and propagation.

Scientists report that nearly all bees worldwide have become contaminated with pesticides, such as widely-used neonicotinoids. Greensprings is committed to being chemical-free, one of the central tenets of green burial – one that extends to the above-ground realm of plants and animals.

Part of the regular maintenance includes mowing all the open areas to keep out encroaching woody species, but timing is very important. Mowing after the blooming season ensures that we are not removing crucial nectar sources for migrating butterflies and resident bees, nor are we disturbing ground-nesting birds. Mowing is necessary to keep access to the burial sites over the winter and helps scatter seed heads of the flowering plants.

We are also making efforts to document the bird species that use Greensprings land during migration or breeding, either on the cemetery land or adjacent properties. Since most of Greensprings’ holdings are bordered by Arnot Forest and state land, a wider variety of breeding, resting and feeding habitat is available to birds.

This summer, we were able to document a family of common ravens breeding successfully on state land bordering the cemetery. A small population of boblinks, a songbird species that has been in decline in many areas, nests at Greensprings and their beautiful, burbling songs can be heard during the breeding season throughout the cemetery lands. Our efforts at enhancing open meadows may entice other rarer birds, such as Henslow’s sparrow and Eastern meadowlark, also in decline throughout their range.

While Greensprings’ efforts may seem small compared to the size of the need, the examples we are undertaking demonstrate our commitment to sustainability – enhancing the richness of the land for future generations, for wildlife and biodiversity, and honoring our commitment to providing natural burial options.

The Ecological Advisory Committee is also hard at work developing a master plan that takes the entire property into consideration as we plan for the future of the cemetery. Since a cemetery must be structured to exist in perpetuity, we want to be sure our actions will be in the best interests of the people we serve and the wildlife and natural systems we hope to support long after we are gone.

Lynn Leopold is a member of the Greensprings board.

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