Estuaries: Where Beach Meets Barrens

My dad’s favorite fishing spots were the backwaters of Brigantine, a series of coves, thoroughfares and channels connected to Absecon Bay and Reed Bay to the west and Little Bay and Great Bay to the north. Great Bay shares many of the same ecological features with Barnegat Bay, both vital estuaries on the Jersey Shore. The Wikipedia article about Great Bay states that it “is part of the New Jersey back barrier lagoon system, and the resources here are similar to those found in the Barnegat Bay complex to the north and the Brigantine Bay and Marsh complex to the south.” 

During Stockton University’s 33rd Annual Pinelands Short Course on March 12th, I attended a  program about Barnegat Bay presented by Karen Walzer, Public Outreach Coordinator at Barnegat Bay Partnership, entitled Water and Wildlife: Pine Barrens to Barnegat Bay.

Barnegat Bay

Karen described Barnegat Bay as a series of barrier islands, which are really “giant sandbars,” where the freshwater of the pinelands mingled with the salt water of the Atlantic ocean, creating a brackish ecosystem of tidal wetlands and salt marshes. Noting the threat of rising sea level, she highlighted the importance of wetlands as a buffer between the bay and nearby homes, protecting them from flooding and storm surge.

She also discussed the impact of pollution caused by overdevelopment and fertilizer runoff. Algae blooms, unhealthy growth of algae fueled by pollution, killed sea life. A Rutgers University study released in 2012 reported that Barnegat Bay’s ecosystem was “highly stressed due to decades of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the waterway from lawns, parking lots and driveways and sewer system overflows” and would “continue to decline unless development and stormwater runoff into the bay are reduced.”

Protecting Estuaries

The end of Karen’s presentation focused on ways to protect and restore Barnegat Bay. Rain barrels, rain gardens, and green infrastructure mimicking nature help protect against runoff. Because shellfish such as scallops, oysters, and clams filter and clean water, efforts to control overharvesting, restore oyster reefs, and increase populations are underway

The Mullica River – Great Bay Estuary
The Mullica River empties into Great Bay, forming the heart of the Mullica River – Great Bay Estuary. In contrast to Barnegat Bay, however, this estuary falls into protected land with restricted development resulting in a sparser human population, making it “the cleanest estuary in the northeastern United States and one of the cleanest ” on the East Coast. This seems especially remarkable given its close proximity to the bustle and bright lights of Atlantic City.

Atlantic City Skyline with great blue heron flying across bay in foreground at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge
Atlantic City Skyline (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Where are the Best Birding Spots in South Jersey?

On Saturday, March 12th, Stockton University held the 33rd Annual Pinelands Short Course described as “a daylong event featuring educational presentations that explore the unique history, ecology, and culture of the Pinelands.” One of the presentations I registered for was the Stockton Campus Birding Walk. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible with cold drenching rain switching over to sleet so the Birding Walk was switched to an indoor presentation of best birding locations in and around the Pine Barrens. The presenter Joshua M. Gant, a park naturalist with Ocean County Parks and Recreation, offered the following recommendations:

During the question and answer session, we discussed Forsythe and when ospreys might be returning. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen any yet, and he noted that it was still too early for them. 

I saw ospreys in the wild for the first time on a gloomy day in late March of 2021 during one of my first trips to the Forsythe refuge. I was on Eco Leeds Trail when I heard a branch snap in a nearby tree and spotted a large bird fly out from behind it. As the osprey swooped above me and headed out over the bay toward a nesting platform where it landed, I snapped a series of photographs.

I’ve already visited Forsythe multiple times this winter when gulls, geese, and ducks are by far the most common birds. Mute swans and Canada geese are year round residents but snow geese visit only in winter.

A mute swan in the bay at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, NJ
Mute Swan at Forsythe (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

This past Saturday, the day before the vernal equinox, I visited Forsythe again and spotted ospreys on several nesting platforms. And they are already hard at work building nests and catching fish! I also saw my first great egret and first double-crested cormorant of the year. Happy Spring!

An osprey eating a fish while sitting on a nesting platform containing a partially built nest at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, Brigantine Division
Osprey Eating a Fish (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

What are the Pinelands CMP Designations? Here’s a Quick Cheatsheet!

The screenshots in this post were taken from the interactive New Jersey Conservation Blueprint Ecological Integrity Map and used with permission of Rowan University. 

When the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan became effective in 1980, it designated nine management areas regulating land use. As an example, this screenshot shows the six designations in my township of Waterford. 

Screenshot of map showing the New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan designations in Waterford
Waterford Pinelands CMP Designations (Used with Permission of Rowan University)

Preservation Area District 

  • The “heart of the Pinelands environment and the most critical ecological region.”
  • Residential development: restricted to “one-acre lots in designated infill areas” and “minimum 3.2 acre lots for property owned by families prior to 1979.
  • Commercial/recreational uses: limited to “designated infill areas.” 

Forest Area 

  • This is “largely undeveloped area that is an essential element of the Pinelands environment.”
  • Residential development: “Clustered housing on one acre lots” with “an average residential density of one home per every 28 acres.”
  • Commercial/recreational uses: “Roadside retail within 300 feet of pre-existing commercial uses” as well as “low intensity recreational uses.”

Rural Development Area

  • This area balances “environmental and development values between conservation and growth areas.”
  • Residential: “Clustered housing on one acre lots” with “an average residential density of one home for every five acres.”
  • Commercial/recreational:  Roadside retail and “community commercial, light industrial and active recreational uses served by septic systems.”

Regional Growth Area 

  • This area consists of “existing growth and adjacent lands capable of accommodating regional growth influences while protecting the essential character and environment of the Pinelands.”
  • Residential development: Densities include “two to six homes per acre with sewers.” 
  • Commercial/recreational use: “Sewered commercial and industrial uses.”

Agricultural Production Area

  • This area consists of “active agricultural use, generally upland field agriculture and row crops, together with adjacent areas with soils suitable for expansion of agricultural operations.” 
  • Residential development: “Farm-related housing on 10 acres and non-farm housing on 40 acres.” 
  • Commercial/recreational use: “agricultural commercial and roadside retail within 300 feet of preexisting commercial uses.”

Pinelands Villages 

  • 47 small settlements, most without sewers, scattered throughout the state-designated pinelands area. 
  • Residential development: “lots between one and five acres.”
  • Commercial/recreational use: Must be “compatible with their existing character.” 

Neighboring Hammonton contains five of the same areas except for a Pinelands Village area. It does, however, include two areas not found in Waterford as this screenshot displays.

Screenshot of map showing the New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan designations in Hammonton
Hammonton Pinelands CMP Designations (Used with Permission of Rowan University)

Special Agricultural Production Area 

  • These include “areas within the Preservation Area primarily used for berry agriculture and horticulture of native Pinelands plants.” 
  • Residential development: Only “farm-related housing on 40 acres and cultural housing exceptions on 3.2 acre lots.”

Pinelands Towns 

  • Seven large settlements “generally with wastewater or water supply systems.” 
  • Residential development: “density of two to four homes per acre with sewers.”
  • Commercial/recreational use: “Sewered commercial and industrial uses.”

The remaining CMP designation is Military and Federal Installation Area, which includes military and federal areas with permitted uses “associated with the function of the installation or other public purpose uses.” An example of this area is the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township.

Fire Watching

Wildfire is endemic in the pine barrens and a natural part of the ecology. Forest fires are so much a part of life in the Pine Barrens that John McPhee devotes an entire chapter of his book to it.

Whatever else they do, men in the Pine Barrens are fire fighters through their lives.

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
A fire-blackened tree trunk surrounded by spring growth near the Mullica River in the Jersey Pine Barrens
Fire-blackened (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) posts updates about the risk of fire for the state. Forest fire season occurs in spring when dry and windy conditions increase the risk of fire danger significantly. Prescribed burns and fire lookout towers help protect residents and their homes from this hazard. Today, I came upon the aftermath of another controlled burn along Sandy Causeway, a dirt road running through Wharton State Forest. Controlled burns have also been performed near the Shamong farm where I board my horse, close enough to easily smell them and make the air and sky hazy. I took this little iPhone video clip showing the smoldering remnants of a prescribed burn performed near my house in March 2021.

Fire Lookout Towers

The NJFFS operates 21 fire lookout towers throughout the state. When fire risk is elevated, Fire Observers staff the towers high above the trees, ever vigilant for wisps of smoke heralding the threat of fire. I’ve had the opportunity to climb to the top of two of the Pine Barrens fire towers. The first was the Apple Pie Hill fire tower in Tabernacle.

Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower in the Tabernacle, NJ Pine Barrens
Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The second was the Bass River fire tower in Tuckerton where I got to meet Bill, a seasoned Fire Observer, who explained his job and the Osborne Fire Finder (also called an alidade) that he used to help him pinpoint the location of any fires he spotted.

Alidade in the Bass River Fire Tower in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
Alidade (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

In fact, according to this Pine Barrens Tribune article, the NJFFS credited this very tower with timely detection of the May 18, 2021 Ballanger fire in Bass River state forest, enabling it to be contained safely. Interestingly, the article states that a clear-cut of trees around the tower took place in January 2020, improving the view from the tower’s cabin, an action performed in the face of years of opposition. 

View of the New Jersey Pine Barrens from the Bass River Fire Tower
Bass River Fire Tower View (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The Black Saturday Fire

The worst fire in New Jersey history started as multiple fires on April 20, 1963. Ignited by human carelessness, it blazed across Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties, burning from 183,000 to 190,000 acres. Seven people lost their lives. Estimated property damage reached $8.5 million. McPhee mentions it in his book, but you can also read about it in these two articles.

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