More than Meets the Eye: Protecting Pine Barrens Ecology

Many people initially experience the Pine Barrens as that stretch of sand and pine trees they drive through on their way to the Jersey shore. As I’ve learned, though, there’s quite a bit more. Three years ago, I went on a Pinelands Adventures educational tour called Pine Barrens Habitats led by long-time Pine Barrens resident Jeff Larson, composer of Leeds Devil Blues and The Barrens. As the most experienced tour guide at Pinelands Adventures, Jeff said he first developed this tour in 2015.

I had the opportunity to revisit a modified version of this tour in April 2022 under a new name: Into the Woods. Pinelands Adventures offers this tour periodically in Wharton State Forest, an area that became the subject of controversy later in 2022 when New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its intention to develop “a new map of Wharton State Forest which identifies sensitive areas and designates motorized routes of off highway roadways.”

In September, DEP held a virtual public meeting during which it launched the Wharton State Forest and Vehicle Use Survey. According to DEP, the survey will allow “participants to mark areas of importance on an interactive mapping tool which may be of personal significance or natural or historic resource importance.” 

If you wish to take the survey, you can access it at this link:

NOTE: The survey closes on Friday, November 11 at 11:59 p.m.

The DEP plan has met with some resistance and pushback from some local residents and communities within Wharton State Forest. In Waterford where I live, the township committee unanimously passed a resolution opposing the plan, the first in response to this latest DEP initiative. In 2015, according to Open Trails New Jersey, a similar plan met with the same opposition from nine townships, including Shamong where Pinelands Adventures operates.

Jersey Geology

Jeff’s tour provided an in-depth look into the unique ecosystem that is generating so much controversy starting with the history of the geological forces that formed it. The Pine Barrens are located on the state’s outer coastal plain, an area very different from North Jersey, reflecting the geological diversity of the state. During the last ice age, what is known as Wisconsin glaciation stopped in North Jersey. As a result, a periglacial environment formed on the coastal plain that was not under the glacier, exposing it to high winds, creating permafrost. 

The movement of the glacier and ancient rivers flowing from the south brought in disjunct species. Acid-tolerant plants thrive here, unlike other plants that cannot tolerate this type of environment. For example, the indigenous and salt tolerant red cedar does well on barrier islands but not as well in the Pine Barrens interior. 

“It’s almost an anomaly,” Jeff said. Today, this is an enormous and distinct wilderness area of public land with the ecological region even larger than the political designation of the Pinelands National Reserve.

The forest consists primarily of pitch pine along with some yellow pine and Virginia pine. Wildfire helps pine trees maintain their dominance. The heat stimulates epicormic shoots to sprout and serotinous pine cones to open and release seeds. The seeds then float on the heated air generated by fire, helping distribution.

European settlers called this area the Pine Barrens because the soil was too acidic to grow many types of crops. Known as “sugar sand,” it filters water efficiently, creating a vast source of pure unpolluted water beneath the surface known as the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. 

“The ecology here is heavily based on that aquifer,” Jeff said. The high acidity and iron in the soil also leads to the formation of “cedar water,” characterized by its reddish color and ironish taste. Continuously replenished by rain, water comes back up through the ground from the aquifer, which in turn feeds wetlands such as seeps, vernal pools, and savannahs.

Spungs and Savannahs

Vernal pools, known colloquially as “spungs,” a word meaning “pockets,” are ponds that fill intermittently throughout the year and are globally rare. Resulting from the permafrost and cryogenesis that occurred along the edges of the glacier, spungs are full of grasses, sedges, and rushes. They also support the lifecycle of species of animals such as “spring peepers,” the little chorus frogs whose loud calls herald the coming of spring. 

“A spung is a very unique environment,” Jeff explained, calling them “a hotbed of amphibian activity.” Fish, especially pickerel, like to eat frogs. Because spungs are not amenable to fish life, they provide safer breeding grounds for amphibians. 

Savannahs are grasslands most likely created by ancient river beds. They are very wet environments, making them excellent for cranberry growth. However, aquifer depletion is negatively impacting savannahs, and they are disappearing. Jeff said they have been reduced by 70%. 

Human Impact

Wildfire helps maintain savannahs, but Jeff explained that fire control could hamper their effect. Some conservationists advocate letting the fires burn a little to open the canopy, however, that could pose grave danger to residents and visitors of the Pine Barrens. 

Pinelands Adventures experienced the danger an uncontrolled fire could pose to people first hand when the Mullica River fire broke out on the morning of June 19, 2022. Their drivers scrambled to evacuate kayaking and camping customers threatened by the blaze. The extensive damage along the river caused them to suspend paddling trips on their primary route.

Although the Lenni Lenape found little of interest in the Pine Barrens and early European colonists initially deemed the region unsuitable for farming, iron industrialists found a rich supply of bog iron for foundries. In addition, cultivation of native blueberries and cranberries eventually took place. Entrepreneurs built dams to create mill ponds for iron foundries as well as cranberry bogs. Jeff explained that these man-made bodies of water altered the ecology several centuries ago, drawing birds of prey such as osprey and bald eagles further inland by providing more fishing territory. One of the largest of these, Atsion Lake, sits across from Pinelands Adventures along the Mullica River, providing both wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for people.

A plume of smoke from the Mullica River Wildfire reflecting on the water of Atsion Lake in Shamong, NJ
Smoke on the Water: The Mullica River Wildfire near Atsion Lake (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

But human activity can have a more destructive effect. Monster trucks and ORV enthusiasts sometimes go into sensitive areas like spungs and savannahs, causing damage. This leads to calls for the DEP to limit access. However, many Pine Barrens residents who frequent dirt roads without causing any damage don’t want roads closed. Jeff, who owns an enduro motorcycle that he rides on Pine Barrens roads, pointed out a 220-year-old road now closed to protect a sensitive area. 

Flora and Fauna

Jeff described many animal species that depend on the Pine Barrens environment to survive and thrive, including black bears, various types of turtles such as snappers and box turtles, indigenous tree-climbing gray foxes, bog lemmings, and red squirrels. Smaller than gray squirrels, red squirrels inhabit cedar swamps in the interior of the Pine Barrens and love feeding on pine cones. Eastern coyotes, which are actually coyote and wolf hybrids, are the apex predator, inheriting that role from the wolf now that wolves are gone. Black vultures are a southern species thought to have ventured north due to global warming. He also mentioned that about 180 plant species in the Pine Barrens are endangered or threatened, including orchids. 

Atlantic White Cedar Swamps

The harvesting of Atlantic White Cedar for shipbuilding greatly depleted their numbers. Efforts have been made to restore the trees, which grow in wetlands and form cedar swamps with absorbent sphagnum moss at their bottom. They need specific conditions to grow well. For instance, savannahs are too wet for cedars. 

“It’s been coming back really well,” Jeff noted. In 2003, he discovered an enormous cedar tree with measurements that qualified it as the largest living Atlantic White Cedar in New Jersey. It was recorded with the New Jersey Official Big Tree Registry.

Whatever the outcome of the latest DEP initiative, the controversy about how to manage and protect the natural resources of the Pine Barrens will likely continue to rage. As with the Pine Barrens themselves, there appears to be more to each side of this debate than meets the eye.

Pine Barrens savannah is visible through pine trees forming a ring around it in the South Jersey
Pine trees enclose a rare Pine Barrens savannah (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.

Beach and Barrens Politics

When I pursued my Journalism degree at Temple University, I took a course in political science. I always remembered my instructor telling us that politics were unavoidable because human beings would always be part of the equation. You could strand two people on a desert island together and still have politics. Brigantine, my former home, is a barrier island not a desert island, but the little beach resort has seen its share of local political squalls. In Greenhead Politics, Brigantine author Patrick Costello chronicled his own experience with what he calls “the underbelly of small-town politics.” 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) hosted a series of webinars about the Pine Barrens and its preservation efforts in the region. One of the most insightful I watched was Pipelines, Progress, and Problems, which provided an overview of the complex political landscape of the Pine Barrens and some of the biggest issues facing it. Politicization of the Pine Barrens began when Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978 and New Jersey passed the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979. Some of today’s issues have their roots in the work done in the 1970s.

Pinelands Commission Appointments

The State of New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the state agency responsible for governing land use in the Pine Barrens, is composed of 15 commissioners. The governor nominates seven commissioners and the seven Pinelands counties appoint seven more. A federal representative from the Department of the Interior also serves as a commissioner. However, according to the PPA, there has not been a federal representative since the last one passed away, and the state Senate, which approves the gubernatorial nominees, has not confirmed the governor’s latest nominations.

Natural Gas Pipelines

The PPA also takes a stand on the issue of natural gas pipelines through the Pine Barrens. It worked to defeat the South Jersey Gas pipeline and opposes construction of the Southern Reliability Link. In April 2021, however, a New Jersey Appellate Court rejected the arguments of the PPA and Sierra Club to halt construction of the Southern Reliability Link. 

Off-Road Vehicle Use

No issue seems to stir up more passion than the use of off-road vehicles in the Pine Barrens. According to the PPA, “illegal off-road vehicle use is causing widespread damage to critical Pinelands habitats.” This position causes controversy with members of the off-road and enduro communities who oppose the creation of a public map designating which sand roads and trails can be used by off-road vehicles. Most recently, in May 2021, the state closed six small areas within five Wildlife Management Areas, citing unauthorized off-road vehicle use as one cause.