15-acre Grassland

The first habitat restoration project undertaken by the Conservancy in the Hilltop Reservation covers a 15-acre area at the top of the Second Watchung Mountain (formerly occupied by the Essex Mountain Sanatorium). Since the Reservation sits at the heart of the Central Passaic Wetlands Critical Bird Migration Area, it has high potential value as stopover habitat during spring and fall migrations. In addition, due to New Jersey’s history of development and simultaneous wildfire suppression, open ridgetop habitats have become increasingly rare in our state.

The sanatorium buildings had been demolished by the time the Conservancy initiated the project in 2005. However the site was definitely not ready for planting: it was still chock-full of debris (see Cleaning Up page for examples), not safe for pedestrians, and 99% infested with mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). It took 3 full years of heavy cleaning and clearing work by volunteers before we were able to bring in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to seed native grasses, e.g., switchgrass, Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem; and wildflowers, e.g., asters, bee balm, lavender hyssop, milkweed, wild senna. See before and after photos below (and note the solitary red pine in the background of both).

15-acre Grassland Restoration – Before (Credit: Richard Kennedy)
15-acre Grassland Restoration – After (Credit: Theresa Trapp)










Today, the grassland is ecologically healthy and a magnet for pollinators, songbirds and small rodents. Hawks, owls and foxes regularly patrol the area for their next meal. Hikers marvel at the open vista and variety of wildlife in the only habitat restoration of its type and size in Essex County.

See progress, next steps and a gallery of implementation photos below.

Progress to Date —

  • 2005-2007: Scoped and budgeted 10-acre project with FWS; obtained commitment from Essex County; conducted site clean-up events (total of 34 truckloads of trash and debris); removed invasive trees
  • 2008: Controlled mugwort infestation; seeded native grasses and wildflowers with FWS; transplanted 600+ native wildflower plugs with Ricoh USA corporate volunteer team; installed 10 nestboxes with Boy Scout Troop 65
  • 2009-2019: Created and installed interpretive signage; cleared and added two acres to restoration site (former parking lot, watersphere enclosure, western strip); monitored and addressed invasives re-growth; continued to seed native wildflowers
  • 2020: County contractor mowed 1.5-acre former parking lot area to improve access for mugwort control
  • 2021-2023: Maintained path by adding wood chips and cutting back overgrowth, spot-treated invasives and cleared fallen branches / trees around edges

Next Steps —

  • 2024: Maintain path, spot-treat invasives and clear fallen branches around edges

To view this gallery click here.