Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
The South is famous for its lonely and desolate pine forests, and so, in fact, is New Jersey. Our version is a bit different though, ecologically more similar to the Pine Barrens of Long Island and southeastern Massachusetts.
The upland forest of the Pine Barrens is similar to other dry, nutrient-poor sites in the region, such as the ridge tops of the Highlands.
Fire is essential in maintaining the dominance of Pitch Pine. Throughout the Pine Barrens there are many incredibly ecologically instructive spots where you can compare a recently burned area on one side of a road to an unburned area on the other side.
The burned sites are relatively clear of undergrowth. The trunks of pitch pines stretch off into the distance. Their the thick, scaly bark is blackened at eye level, but gives way to healthy crowns above. The deciduous trees and shrubs look like their above-ground portions have burnt extensively and have been largely killed off, though many are resiliently stump sprouting. Some grasses seem to be growing, but they may have been non-native. Incredibly, mosses and lichens seem to have survived the fire, or at least regrown quickly.
The unburned sites have numerous shrubby oaks mixed in with the pines - from white oak to scrub oak to pin oak. The understory is dominated by a rich variety of blueberry and huckleberry species, many of which were deliciously ripe on a June 25, 2017 visit. The scrub oak and blueberry makes for a very dense and impenetrable forest. Other tree species were rare, but Sassafras was present in some spots.
Throughout the Pinelands, some spots are more pine dominated and others are more oak dominated. Apparently in the long-term absence of fire, the forest will transition to purely mixed-oak. On the other hand, in the poorest, sandiest sites, pines grow uncontested. The famous "lower plains" is a dwarf pine forest, where none of the trees are more than like 10 feet tall.
The riparian sites are much more unique and diverse. Cedar swamps are found extensively throughout the region, though they tend to have been extensively harvested for the valuable cedar wood. Along the rivers in the pines is a much more diverse forest than in the uplands. In addition to cedars, cool species such as Tupelo, Sweet Gum, and (I think) Loblolly Pine can be found. I saw a Magnolia with big lemon-scented yellow flowers, leaning out over the water. This is the only time I've ever seen a magnolia in the wild (not having travelled much in the inland South). A variety of grasses and shrubs hugged the river bank too.
Geologically speaking, the Pine Barrens rest on a recently deposited pile of generally unconsolidated sand. The deposition dates from a time when sea levels were higher, and North America's rivers were dumping sand onto the continental shelf. The sand is relatively ineffective at holding water and results in poor soils. The area is mostly flat, but there are a few random scattered hills. Hills of NJ's Coastal Plain are frequently composed of sand and pebbles cemented into ironstone. Some of these hills have fire towers on them, and are very nice places to see the flat and desolate expanse of the Pine Barrens.
Despite NJ's general rule of extreme density, the Pine Barrens are a sparsely inhabited area taking up roughly half of South Jersey. As an ecological region, they run down the entire state from Monmouth County south to Cape May. In the west, there is a pretty clear boundary between farmland on the state's western half and forest on the eastern half, corresponding to the transition from better to worse soils. Ecologically speaking, the Pine Barrens extended all the way to the coastal salt marshes and bays just behind the Atlantic Coast in the east, but there is so much development along the Parkway corridor all the way down that culturally speaking that area is not the Pine Barrens. Also the lack of natural forest fires changes the composition of the forest.
Impact of Land Use History
The soils are too poor for most types of agriculture, and pitch pines are not a very usable timber species, so much of the area was left undisturbed in America's great land rush. However the northeastern Atlantic costal pine barren ecosystem is wonderfully suited to commercial cranberry and blueberry growing. New Jersey weighs in as the #3 and #5 state for cranberry and blueberry production, respectively, with growers concentrated almost entirely in the Pine Barrens. And this agricultural bounty is in spite of the state's small size. Cranberry bogs are a common sight in the area. NJ horticulturalist Elizabeth White created the first commercially viable blueberry plants in the Pine Barrens.
Red cedar, which grows in swamps dotting the Pine Barrens, is highly valued for its fragrant, rot-resistant wood. It historically has been harvested extensively in New Jersey. I witnessed the aftermath of a huge cedar harvest in Double Trouble State Park in 2016.
Bog iron, or ironstone, was mined in the Pines, at places such as Batsto Village, now a historical museum.
The military has some facilities in the Pine Barrens. They like to drop bombs there, and have been known to cause forest fires. One time, exploring some back roads in the pine barrens, we got to a barrier with all kinds of military warning signs not to go past it: "Danger: Laser in use" is one I remember. I think we'd stumbled across some sort of bombing range.
There was a particularly extensive forest fire maybe 20 years ago, the effects of which can still be seen from the Parkway.
The Pine Barrens have river systems all their own, some draining southeast into the Atlantic bays, others southwest into Delaware Bay. These are obviously fairly flat rivers, which tend to wind extensively. One fun thing about them is that the water is tea colored: brown but clear. The simple layperson's explanation for this phenomenon is "because of all the pine needles."
A massive aquifer lies beneath the Pine Barrens. I'm not a hydrologist, but I think the layers of unconsolidated sand that underlie the region contribute to the quality of the aquifer. Also I think the fact that industrial development in the region was limited is another major plus for water quality. The presence of the aquifer is often cited as justification for state and federal protection of much of the Pinelands - the part not owned by the military at least. The water could, in a pinch, be delivered to the New York and/or Philly metro areas.
The region's isolation in former times and lack of an agrarian economy caused it to develop its own distinct rural "Piney" culture, with its own dialect.
The Pine Barrens have a certain folk appeal throughout NJ culture. They're our very own wilderness. I've found that people in NJ like to share facts they know about the Pine Barrens. Some of us have read John McPhee's excellent book The Pine Barrens. It's also an area we can go to for rural experiences unusual in New Jersey, like driving endlessly on bumpy, muddy back roads empty of people. There is definitely a feeling of desolation there that one doesn't often find in the New York area.Apparently there was a Sopranos episode about the Pine Barrens?