Opinion: The Pine Barrens gets some help from its friends

pinelands, new jersey environment

MICHELE S. BYERS / NJCF – Along New Jersey State Highway 72 in New Lisbon, just around the bend from Brendan Byrne State Forest, is a publicly-accessible forest fire observation tower. The view is stunning: one can see the vast expanse of our Pine Barrens, a sea of green extending in every direction.

At first glance, the forests may all look alike. But look more closely and you’ll begin to see a rich diversity of trees and plants, surprising for a place called barren.

Maintaining diverse forests and habitats within the Pine Barrens is the focus of restoration programs conducted by the New Jersey Forest Service and its partners.

The Pine Barrens landscape is dominated by globally rare forests known as pitch pine/scrub oak upland, along with lowland pitch pine, cedar swamps, and maple-gum swamps. Pitch pine forests – even the wet, swampy ones – need frequent fires to maintain rare or unique species of reptiles, amphibians, birds and wildflowers.

And there’s a lot more to this sea of green. Look for meandering ribbons of deep green Atlantic white cedar along streams. The Shinn’s Branch Cedar Swamp Natural Area is close by.  Eighty percent of New Jersey’s Atlantic white cedar forests were lost due to over-harvesting and over-abundant deer; the recovery of these magnificent forests is a continuing priority of the NJ Forest Service.

Farther southeast from the New Lisbon fire tower are the famous pygmy pines, also known as the pine plains, the most wildfire-adapted plant community in the world!  These short-stature pines and oaks have survived centuries of wildfires, and prairie warblers and brown thrashers are two of the area’s most abundant birds. The NJ Forest Service is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners to restore pitch pine forests through ecological burning.

From the fire tower, you’ll see soft, light green patches of tall oak trees interrupting the darker green carpet, especially westward toward Magnolia Road. These tall oaks often grow in slightly richer soils. The extra soil moisture, along with natural firebreaks provided by wide swamps, protect these oak forests from the frequent and severe wildfires found in nearby pitch pine/shrub oak barrens.

You would need to take a walk through these oak forests to experience their diversity!  Southern red oak, chestnut oak, white oak, black oak, scarlet oak, post oak – plus shortleaf, pitch, and Virginia pines to start. And they host different birds than other parts of the Pine Barrens: species that like to glean insects amongst tall deciduous canopies. Yellow-billed cuckoos, great-crested flycatchers, summer and scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, and many woodpeckers – including the state endangered red-headed woodpecker – utilize these oak woods, especially in places where the lower layers of forest aren’t crowded with too many young pines.

Tall oak forests in the Pine Barrens face many challenges. In recent decades, gypsy moth outbreaks have killed many, and browsing deer have prevented the trees from replacing themselves with new seedlings.

The New Jersey Forest Service is currently restoring a 64-acre tree oak–shortleaf pine forest along Magnolia Road in Brendan Byrne State Forest. Until now, the oaks and shortleaf pine trees in this little island of diversity had not been regenerating. The forestry management project will ensure that the oaks and shortleaf pines regenerate so this unique habitat type is not swallowed up by the surrounding pitch pine forest.

The Magnolia Road forest has been thinned, especially of excess pitch pine trees, with many large oaks and shortleaf pines left in scattered locations to provide acorns and seeds. The thick layer of huckleberry and low-bush blueberry bushes have been mowed to make way for germinating acorns and seeds, producing a pleasant, park-like appearance. A possible prescribed burn will help encourage even more seed germination in the sandy soil.

Light soil disturbance is not risky in the Pine Barrens. Unlike forests in other parts of this state we’re in, Pine Barrens forests have virtually no alien invasive species to outcompete native wildflowers like bird’s-foot violet and trailing arbutus.

In the old woodcutting days, oak forests were over harvested with no thought for the future. Roots re-sprouted but no habitat was created for vibrant seedlings. Today, the NJ Forest Service uses complex growth models to predict the rates at which the new generation of oaks and pines will grow between their healthy parents.

The NJ Forest Service designed the Magnolia Road project so the future forest will have trees of all species and ages. Hopefully, a deer fence won’t be needed to allow seedling oaks to grow tall. Should fences be needed, the NJ Forest Service has plenty of experience erecting deer fences to protect young Atlantic white cedar forests. Close monitoring of the forest re-growth will determine the next steps to ensure that this patch of diverse tall oaks and mixed species of pines will not only rebound, but thrive.

Check out the Magnolia Road restoration site next time you visit the Pine Barrens. In May and June, you will almost assuredly find bright red male summer tanagers flitting in the tops of the tall oaks. The females are a leafy yellowish green color and hard to spot, but both sexes often utter a two or three syllabled “hic-up” or “hic-cic-up” call. If you are really lucky, you’ll catch a flash of a brilliant red-headed woodpecker!

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation.


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