The May 4 event, however, lacked nothing in the way of dignitaries or pomp. It was full of singing, inflated balloons and kids wearing hats and masks created just for the occasion. Although a briefer ceremony than in the past - lasting slightly over and hour - local, county, Meadowlands and state officials managed to pack it with the usual celebration of the environment. This was despite news from Washington D.C. that did not promise a hopeful future for trees nationwide. Local officials seemed undaunted by the Arbor Day announcement in late April that the President would lift logging restrictions imposed under the previous president, Bill Clinton, allowing many of the old growth forests to be open to commercial production.
Secaucus seemed to catch the environmental spirit about the same time Clinton took office, holding Arbor Day every spring since 1993 - with other tree-planting efforts for a few years prior to that. But Secaucus officials said they would continue to protect trees here, and, in fact, brought to the ceremonies several special announcements that supported their claims.
From opening remarks by Deputy Mayor John Reilly and the invocation by Monsignor Donald Gunther to closing songs by singers from Clarendon and Huber Street schools and benediction by Rev. Mark Lewis, the event was bathed in song and good cheer, with speeches about trees instead of politics, and a sense of growing optimism for the fate of trees in Secaucus if not the nation.
What is Arbor Day?
Arbor means "tree" in Latin. The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska on April 10, 1872. Jack Shuart, an assistant regional forester with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Arbor Day was the dream of J. Sterling Morton, a man who managed to get the first day going 102 years ago in Nebraska. Now, the day is celebrated in every state.
Morton, a Nebraska newspaper publisher, encouraged Nebraskans to plant trees to beautify and enrich the treeless state. He offered prizes for the most trees planted; over a million trees were planted on that first Arbor Day. After Arbor Day was made a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885, agricultural associations and town councils spread the idea in other states. A campaign also was inaugurated to make Arbor Day a school festival.
Now, with activities that range from the planting of a single tree to the beautification of public grounds, children are learning the importance of forestry and reforestation.
New Jersey has been celebrating Arbor Day since 1949, with the last Friday in April set aside by law to encourage the planting of trees.
Tree City USA began as a 1976 Bicentennial project co-sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA-Forest Service. The National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are now co-sponsors as well.
To become a Tree City USA, a community must meet four standards: have a tree board or department, a tree care ordinance, a comprehensive community forestry program and an Arbor Day observance. This year the town again receive a Tree City USA Growth Award for demonstrating progress in its community forestry program.
Chairman of the Shade Tree committee, DPW Superintendent and HMDC Commissioner Mike Gonnelli said Secaucus has made great strides in protecting the town's urban forest over the last few year. Through the efforts of the shade tree committee, hundreds of trees have been saved, and hundreds of new trees planted. In fact, Secaucus has planted well over 2,000 trees since 1992.
This year, Secaucus was named Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation for the eighth time and received a Tree City USA Growth Award for demonstrating progress in its community forestry program which included educating for tree workers and tree managers and the maintaining of parks and open space. As part of its yearly commitment to special projects, the town's Shade Tree Committee dedicated a special memorial garden at the Immaculate Conception School site.
"Although we have a number of people who take an active part in the Shade Tree Committee, we have to recognize the hard work Mike Gonnelli put into all this," Mayor Dennis Elwell said. "If it were not for Mike, none of this would have happened."
Amanda Mitchell, a seventh grade student from ICS who said she may seek a career as a lawyer, said she felt strongly about the planting of trees.
"I think we need trees to walk around and sit under for shade," she said
Anthony Baglino, also a seventh grader who wants to seek a career as a professional football player, said he liked the idea that the town was planting trees.
"I think trees help give us fresh air," he said.
Good news from Schmidt's Woods
Elwell also credited the local state assemblyman for helping creating good news for trees during this year's Arbor Day. Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto (D-32nd Dist.) brought good tidings, noting that work begun on Schmidt's Woods - one of the state's last remaining areas of old growth forest - was only the beginning of funding he has proposed to help preserve the site as a park.
Last year, Impreveduto was instrumental in getting $150,000 state grant to begin to restore the paths and park areas of the 13.9-acre site.
The park, which was dedicated in 1958 by then-Mayor James Moore, has been a popular site for passive recreation such as picnicking, bird watching, walking and family outings.
"Fifteen years ago, we proposed an upgrade for Schmidt's Woods," Impreveduto said. "We could not do much of the work because we estimated we needed $750,000 to complete it. I'm promising to find the money to finish it this time."
Located on Mill Ridge Road near the sewage disposal facility at Mill Creek, Schmidt's Woods - along with Little Ferry's Losen Slote - constitutes the last remaining lowland forest habitat in the Meadowlands District, according to Meadowlands Naturalist John R. Quinn.
Impreveduto said it was the only remaining hardwood parcel of open space in Secaucus, boasting of a mixture of mature Pin Oaks, Maples, and Sweet Gum.
According to a report issued by Gonnelli, it also contains many natural shrubs such as viburnum, spice bush and dogwood.
"These mature trees and shrubs provide excellent nesting and resting areas for wildlife," Gonnelli said.
According to Quinn, "More than 20 species of wood warblers have been recorded in Schmidt's Woods during spring migration. At least 15 species of resident birds next there."
A variety of animals including the red fox, muskrat, raccoon and opossum use the park for resting and refuge, and two species of mosquito-eating bats have been spotted there, Quinn said.
According to Richard Kane of the New Jersey Audubon Society, a pair of Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron had actually nested in a tree at the edge of the woods last year.
"Without the work we're proposing for that site, it was unlikely Schmidt's Woods would have survived another 50 years," Impreveduto said. "Now we know it will survive 50 and maybe the next 100 years."
Cleaning up around town
After the ceremonies, kids and adults spread out to beautify the town. About a dozen people went to Fountain Park, where Edna Duffy designed and planted a butterfly garden.
Huber Street School students cleaned around Schmidt's Woods. The Secaucus High School Help Our Planet Earth Club planted near the Koelle Boulevard Park. Secaucus Middle School students raked and cleaned the western bank of the Duck Pond, while Clarendon School students cleaned and raked around the ball fields on Clarendon School. Early on, Secaucus officials picked up on an old Native American Indian custom with its Adopt-a-block and Adopt-a-park programs. In some tribes, parents would play a tree for each child born and name the tree after the child. In the Adopt-A-Block is a program, residents can purchase trees for an entire block to help replace all the trees that the town has lost. Signs will now be installed on each of the designated blocks with small-attached nameplates identifying the individuals and organizations that contributed to the installation of the trees. Although the final tally has yet to be figured, Gonnelli said donations for tree planting this year exceeded $10,000 and could exceed last year's total of $13,000.
Where the flowers come from
Long before Secaucus became famous for its outlets and malls, and before it became notorious for its pig farms, it was known for its greenhouses. The town was a center for flowers and vegetables that helped New Jersey acquire its moniker as "The Garden State."
While Secaucus still maintains a few of its garden centers such as Hugerich's on Henry Street and Home Depot on Paterson Plank Road, the man best known for keeping the old tradition alive is Department of Public Works Superintendent Mike Gonnelli. He has been using the town-owned greenhouses for over a decade to grow flowers that get planted around town in May.
For Gonnelli, spring planting doesn't start in May, or April or even March, but at the end of February, often when winter is still in full bloom.
"We start planting in the greenhouse in February, and we put them outside on May 15," Gonnelli said last week. In the past, Gonnelli made use of every available space - including the top floor of the Elms senior citizen building, which he once converted into a greenhouse. But over the years, a leaky roof and the sheer labor of carrying the grown plants out of the eight-floor building discouraged its use.
"Now we do everything up at the high school," he said.
Although Gonnelli has been employed in the DPW for nearly 30 years, he previously owned a greenhouse and landscape business and is a registered Master Gardener. He has served on the Secaucus Shade Tree Committee since its inception in 1992, and serves as the town's tree conservation officer. He is largely responsible for organizing Arbor Day celebrations as well as the year-round tree conservation program. Growing the plants from seeds is done on off-hours and weekends, Gonnelli said - though he still stops in to check on the progress whenever he is in the area.
"We're getting ready to put out geraniums," he said.
In many areas, tulip and bulbs that were planted in previous years have already bloomed, painting the public areas in a variety of colors. The flowers Gonnelli grows wind up decorating the parks, traffic islands, school yards, playgrounds and other properties owned by the town, and planting occurs between May and November. "People think we spend a lot of money buying flowers," Gonnelli said. "In truth we get thousands of flowers from about $300 worth of seed."
Flower plots and soil costs about the same amount, but the value of the plants by far exceeds the investment, he said.
In mid-may, Girl Scouts, Brownies and the high school Hope Club scurry out to help plant some of these flowers. DPW workers take flowers to other parts of town. The largest area is the Plaza, where flowers decorate the traffic islands.