‘Spectacular’ bike tour to help preserve Sourland Mountain Region

Diane and Tom Seessel in front of the barn on their Featherbed Lane homestead. (Staff photo by Joe Emanski.)

Sourland Conservancy’s bike tour to raise funds for the little-known mountain region.

Many of Central Jersey’s avid hikers are happy to drive more than an hour up to the Delaware Water Gap without ever realizing they’ve got a wild mountain preserve right here in Hopewell: the Sourlands.

The undiscovered nature of the region is both its boon and its bane. When cyclists race along the routes of the second annual Sourland Spectacular bike tour on Sept. 7, they’ll be raising funds for and awareness of the work of the Sourland Conservancy, a grassroots group dedicated to preserving the character of the unheralded and relatively undeveloped wilderness.

Yet the Sourlands’ status as a hidden gem is also why some fear it is under threat from the encroaching suburbs, and why they are seeking to educate the public about the potential perils of overdevelopment. For that matter, even those who have homes within its unofficial borders may not realize just what the Sourland Mountain Region is and why it needs safeguarding — although chances are, they know why they like living there. Many members of the Conservancy say they settled in the region precisely to get away from the hubbub of the ’burbs.

Drawing attention to the area’s Vermontlike vistas and trails and secluded home lots could lead to an increase of tourism and development. And keeping it a secret could open it up to unwitting disruption from uninitiated parties. That dilemma is exactly why the Conservancy exists: to attempt to ensure that whatever happens next in the region will be what’s best for the Sourlands and its current inhabitants, human and otherwise.

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The rigid spine of Sourland Mountain rises abruptly just minutes north of Princeton and Pennington. Seventeen miles long and three miles wide, the ridge stretches from Lambertville to Belle Mead. It is believed to have formed some 200 million years ago as the result of an eruption of molten rock.

At its highest point, the “mountain” is just 567 feet above sea level, and the spot along the roadside where this elevation is marked is otherwise unremarkable. But views of the ridge heading north into Hopewell Borough would not be out of place on a New England postcard, with church spires and silos set against a steep backdrop of forest hills. Less than a mile north of Broad Street you’re in the heart of the Sourlands; you’ll know you’ve left the sprawl behind by the time you pass the restaurant by the side of Hopewell-Wertzville Road. Its name: Hillbilly Hall.

Even Hillbilly Hall’s most devoted country line dancers might have been largely ignorant of the region’s ecological significance in 1986, the year Robert Garrett founded the Sourland Regional Citizen’s Planning Council. For more than a decade, the organization operated in relative obscurity. Some 10 years ago, the name was changed to Sourlands Planning Council, but even at that time, the group’s reach remained quite short.

Things have been changing in the last few years. Filmmaker and Hopewell resident Jared Flesher made a documentary film, Sourlands, that boosted interest in the area, and this year, the SPC hired its first full-time executive director, Hillsborough resident Caroline Katmann. The group changed its name again, this time to the Sourland Conservancy, which is seen as better representing the organizational mission of protecting the region’s character, history and ecology.

The Conservancy has also begun to affect policy in the region. In 2010 it finalized its Sourlands Mountain Comprehensive Management Plan. Five towns — West Amwell and East Amwell in Hunterdon County, Hopewell Township in Mercer County and Hillsborough and Montgomery Townships in Somerset County — have recognized the plan, agreeing in principle to abide its goals.

On one level, the comprehensive management plan is about restricting development within the 90 square miles of the Sourlands. Some residents have gone so far as to call for an outright prohibition of future construction, including “teardowns,” which are when homeowners demolish existing homes and erect larger homes on the same lots.

But there is more worth preserving on the ridge and in the foothills than mere rural character. There are also threats to the ecological balance of the Sourlands to consider. According to the Conservancy, the area is particularly susceptible to water shortage or drought due to insufficient groundwater, and contains numerous wetlands that could not withstand development.

And there is the area’s history. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh lived here; George Washington and his Continental Army are said to have hidden from the British here. While any number of historic sites in the area have succumbed to spreading suburbia, the Conservancy would like to see the Sourlands preserved in a way that the rest of Mercer County was not.

With the threat of rampant development abated at least for the time being, the group has switched from consensus building to action. A strategic plan adopted by the board last month has an ambitious vision statement: “The Sourland Conservancy envisions a future in which the Sourland Region is successfully safeguarded as Central New Jersey’s last great wilderness.” The plan’s 11 goals include lobbying localities to strengthen land use regulations and creating and distributing “responsible stewardship” guidelines to area residents.

To accomplish these goals by the organization’s 30th anniversary in 2016, as well as generally plump up its profile, the members need to raise money, which is why they are hosting events such as the Sourland Music Festival and the Sourland Spectacular.

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When it comes to fundraising, Tom Kilbourne’s primary focus is the music festival, which he’s been helping to organize for the past nine years. Blues guitarist Eric Steckel headlined this year’s concert, which was held July 21.

“I just sort of took it upon myself to do it, with a lot of other volunteers — to get the thing off the ground. I just thought it’d be a good fundraiser,” said Kilbourne, who is secretary of the Conservancy board. Also sitting on the board are president Cliff Wilson (of Montgomery), vice president Jennifer Bryson (Hillsborough) and treasurer Tom Seessel (Hopewell).

He said the music festivals have been good events, but only “OK” as fundraisers.

“It’s more of a community event. That has some worth, but as a fundraiser it’s not that great,” he said. “It costs a lot to get those off the ground.”

It is illustrative of how much the Conservancy has upped its game in recent years that influential members like Kilbourne don’t have firm recollections of just when they joined the organization. Kilbourne reckons it was between 10 and 15 years ago that he first heard about the group.

“One year I think maybe I saw them at the Hopewell Harvest Festival,” he said. “So I knew of them, and of course I became curious because I live up there.”

Kilbourne is the third-generation owner of Kilbourne and Kilbourne, a Hopewell-based mail-order company specializing in “recognition products” — notably, lapel pins used in the health-care industry. His grandfather, Kent Kilbourne, started the company. He grew up in Princeton, graduating from Princeton High School in 1977.

He moved to Hopewell after graduating from New England College in New Hampshire. He lives with his wife, Liz Westergard, and their children Ash, 21, and Peter, 19. Kilbourne said when he was looking for a place to move back in the 1980s, he was turned off by the rapidly expanding suburbs and enticed by the woodsy appeal of the ridge.

He is among those who are concerned about what would happen in the region if too many more homes are built. The water supply couldn’t sustain too many more residents, he said, and the land will deteriorate if the density of development becomes too great. He feels the Conservancy’s main purpose is educating people about the Sourlands.

“Twenty years ago, people outside didn’t equate the Sourlands with a word or even an area. They knew if they drove by it what it was seemingly like, but they didn’t know how extensive it was,” he said. “Now I think people do have an idea of the scope of the land and pressures from all sides in terms of development.”

Katmann’s origin story is not unlike Kilbourne’s. She moved to the area in 2006 with her husband, and recalls attending a meeting at the Hillsborough municipal building in 2008 at which the former Sourlands Planning Council, an organization she had never heard of, presented its comprehensive management plan.

“I researched the Sourlands and could not believe that I had never heard of this incredible place before — and that I actually lived in an area as special as this,” she wrote in an email.

She started attending meetings and was invited to become a trustee. When she learned that the group was looking to hire a full-time executive director, she expressed interest, and was hired in January.

“It has been my privilege to work for this board. Their areas of expertise include biology, geology, ecology, information technology, business and more,” she wrote. “They are a highly intelligent and dedicated group of people who work incredibly well together because they share a common passion for the Sourlands.”

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Tom and Diane Seessel’s idyllic homestead on Featherbed Lane in Hopewell features a rustic barn, gardens and grasslands with beguiling pathways mowed into the landscape. Outside their windows, beyond the secluded backyard, is the dense deciduous forest typical of the region.

The Seessels first came to know the area when they attended graduate school at Princeton University. They lived briefly in Connecticut before settling in the Sourlands. They have three grown children — Adam, Jessica and Ben — and three grandchildren.

Tom Seessel worked with various philanthropic, governmental and nongovernmental agencies throughout his career, including the Ford Foundation, before retiring two years ago. He and Diane moved to Hopewell 46 years ago and they’ve lived here ever since.

Seessel is enthusiastic about the strategic plan, and passionate about a number of its goals, including the proposal to control the deer population. The deer, which have few natural predators in the Sourlands today, are more abundant than ever, and their eating habits threaten to disrupt the understory of the forest.

The Conservancy feels the State of New Jersey likes to keep the deer population high because it makes for more targets for hunters come deer season. Seessel would urge the state to consider thinning out the herds.

“It’s going to take a significant change in policies,” he said. “For example, venison— you can’t sell it now. If you could sell it, that might encourage more hunting.”

Seessel also supports the effort to promote the Sourlands’ history. The first step, he said, is to research and publish an inventory of everything of historical significance.

“It was a major stop on the underground railway for slaves escaping. The Lindbergh Estate is here,” he said. “There are structures and characters of historic interest that we need to find better ways to protect and preserve for future generations.”

Seessel grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., in a mountainous area of the Tennessee River Valley, and says that’s one of the reasons he was drawn to a place like the Sourlands.

“It’s quiet. You can hear the birds singing, you can see the sky — at night you can see stars. The smells are different. It’s just fantastic contrast with what the rest of the area is,” Seessel said.

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Kilbourne said board president Cliff Wilson came up with the idea to raise money with a bike tour, although of course it takes the effort of many members to make the event a success.

The Sourland Spectacular may be a ride through a park, but it won’t be a walk in the park. Wilson recommends the bike tour for physically fit riders only. Four different routes are planned, ranging in distance from 23 to 63 miles. The shorter routes have been designed with casual bikers in mind, but hills are a feature in all of them.

“The Sourland Spectacular is rapidly becoming our signature event,” Seessel said. “It’s important to me that people come here see how fantastically beautiful it is, and the bike ride is a great way to do that — a way to tell our story to people who may not know it, get greater appreciation for what we’re doing.”

All routes begin and end at the Otto Kaufman Community Center, 356 Skillman Road, Skillman. Parking will be across the street at Montgomery High School. The registration fee is $40 per person, with discounts available for early registration. The fee for children between the ages seven to 17 is $20. Children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The morning rides will be followed by lunch at the Otto Kaufman Community Center. Nomad Pizza and Not Just Q of Stockton will serve lunch. Designated rest stops along the routes will provide beverages, snacks and bathroom facilities. Hart’s Cyclery of Pennington is set to provide SAG services. More information is online at sourland.org/spectacular.

The Sourlands Conservancy’s next scheduled meeting is Oct. 7 at the Hopewell Train Station. New members are welcome. More information is online at sourland.org.

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