Seedlings Of Discord Take Root Along Trail How Purists Have Blocked A Nature Lover's Yearning For A Walk On The Wild Side.

Posted: October 22, 1993

ROSE VALLEY — Tucked behind the miniature castle of the Rose Valley Folk theatrical group and bordered by a stretch of Ridley Creek, the Saul Wildlife Sanctuary is basking in all its autumn splendor.

Majestic magnolias, a tulip poplar, several sweet gum trees - identifiable by their star-shaped leaves - and the largest white birch in Delaware County all stand in the peaceful preserve, about 17 acres of borough-managed land that are open to the public.

But for all its tranquillity, the sanctuary is the focal point of a heated debate over just how natural it should be.

At issue is a 0.3-mile loop trail that borough resident Jeff Stopford carved out last year to enhance the view for hikers.

Stopford says he has returned to the trail dozens of times to clear fresh growth and trash blocking the pathway, and has noticed more visitors to the sanctuary since he completed the trail last December.

But the borough, which at first authorized the trail clearing, has since taken a different view. In August, it ordered him to discontinue all maintenance efforts.

"The borough sent me a letter banishing me," Stopford said. "I'm not allowed to pick up sticks, remove a dead limb, disturb a blade of grass, pick up litter . . ."

Borough officials said the order was handed down because of residents' concerns about disturbing plants and wildlife at the site and fears that Stopford would add more trails. Officials said the borough needed to decide appropriate uses for the sanctuary before further actions on the land are undertaken.

Until late last year, many of the preserve's prized trees were visible only to the 55 species of birds known to frequent the small paradise.

Unsatisfied with the lone path that traversed the shrub-filled land, Stopford got the borough's permission to weave a second trail through it.

"The traditional trail has been there 50 years or so along the creek," Stopford said. "It's pretty, but it's all the same."

Stopford's trail not only offers walkers a more varied view of the refuge's natural treasures but also saves them from having to double back on their return trip to the sanctuary entrance near Old Mill Lane.

The 49-year-old nature lover received a letter from the borough thanking him for his work in the wooded area, a haven for joggers, thinkers, bird- watchers and classes from the School of Rose Valley.

He maintained the trail until receiving the cease-and-desist letter. "I got at least six different versions of how the letter came to be written," Stopford said. "The rumor is that two women complained, neither of whom ever set foot in the park."

Borough Secretary Paula Healey said she was directed to write the letter by Borough Council President William Rumford because of "an accumulation of concerns . . . people feeling there wasn't enough structure to the maintenance."

Because the borough does not have a highway department, she said, the refuge has been managed at sporadic intervals by various people since its dedication in 1974.

Stopford "was doing it to be a nice guy," Healey said. "He had permission to put in a trail a year ago. He was maintaining it, but we didn't officially designate him the maintenance man."

The Borough Council is expected to make a decision on permitted uses in the sanctuary by next month's council meeting, said Rumford.

"Some said you shouldn't allow people in (the sanctuary) at all," said Council Vice President Gerard Perry, who said he was unsure as to how the letter to Stopford originated.

"Saying the sanctuary is not intended for the enjoyment of human beings is a bizarre position to take for municipal land," said Stopford, a father and retired trial lawyer who volunteers his time for a variety of community projects.

The issue was brought to the forefront at this month's council meeting, attended by about 40 of the borough's estimated 1,000 residents. Most supported the upkeep of Stopford's trail.

Even Andy Saul of Rose Valley, a grandson of the couple who donated the sanctuary's land to the borough, spoke up in favor of the loop trail.

"Tyler Arboretum has plenty of trails," he said later. "It doesn't seem to affect the wildlife."

Saul said he was pleased with Stopford's efforts on the property, but added that several of his relatives were not.

Maurice and Adele Saul, who were instrumental in the founding of Rose Valley, donated the land to the borough in parcels from 1959 to 1970 to be kept as a wildlife area.

"This was land they didn't care much about," their grandson said. "They got a tax break."

He said he had been told the land served as a cornfield and pasture about 75 years ago.

Resident Tim Plummer, who said he spent about 100 hours a year observing nature in the preserve, also voiced his support of Stopford's trail at the meeting.

Meanwhile, weeds and other growth have begun to encroach on the trail in the last two months, erasing the fruits of Stopford's labor.

"The grass is overgrowing. You get soaked if it's wet," Stopford said. ''The (space above the) trail is full of branches that are going to poke someone in the eye pretty soon. It's dangerous."

Council members said they hoped to make a decision not only on Stopford's trail, but also on the possible formation of a regulating body that would manage the sanctuary and organize volunteers to help out.

"We'd certainly want it to be so that birds, animals and people can all enjoy themselves there," Perry said.

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