The New Jersey Pine Barrens are named a “Last Great Place” by the Nature Conservatory. They are 1.1 million contiguous acres of dense and scattered forests, bogs, marshes, and grasslands. The Pine Barrens are characterized by highly acidic, sandy soil, that is almost completely infertile. But it is because of the its unique conditions that the barrens are home to an uncommonly diverse ecosystem, including carnivorous plants as well as rare butterflies and endangered frogs. The Pine Barrens also boast some of the purest water found in the United States. There are several shallow aquifers beneath the barrens, including the 17 trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohanset aquifer.
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission was set up to control the development in the Pine Barrens, which includes the Wharton, Brendan T. Byrne, and Bass River State Forests. Thanks to their efforts, the area is still mostly virgin forest, although there are some areas of suburbanization, and two major highways run directly through it. Because of the sandy soil and extensive marshes, the barrens do have a thriving berry industry, with some of the best cranberry bogs in the country, and perfect terrain for blueberry shrubs. As well, there are abundant hazelnut shrubs and prairie willow, all common to the area because they can easily adapt to the region’s fires.
The ecology of the barrens is based on the occurrence of wildfires. The fires prevent other more woody species from taking over the bogs and marshes. This is exactly why barrens are rare elsewhere – it is the natural tendency of people to suppress wildfires. Only in the specific ecosystem of the barrens are certain species able to survive. The barrens have a variety of forests, from pine and oak, to cedar and hardwood, but they also have a 12,000 acre pygmy forest. The pygmy trees are dwarf pines and oaks, standing less than 11 feet high. There are at least 850 different species of plant in the Pine Barrens, including such rarities as the curly grass fern and the American chafseed. Botanists have discovered 30 rare, threatened or endangered species of plant in the barrens.
Along with a rich array of plant species, the barrens harbor a number of uncommon animals and insects. Most notably the endangered Pine Barren tree frog, marked with a lavender and white stripe on either side. This tiny frog only exists in the Pine Barrens, the Sandhills of the Carolinas and the Florida panhandle. Also the Barred Owl and Northern Pine Snake, both listed as threatened species call the New Jersey Pine Barrens home. Other hard to find creatures include the Karner blue butterfly and the barrens buckmoth. For many species, the barrens are one if not the last place in existence that they can thrive within.
What has perhaps garnered both national and international interest in the Pine Barrens are the shallow aquifers located just below the sandy soil, which the locals have named “sugar sand”. Because of the permeable soil, the barrens are sitting on a national treasure – pure water. The waters are unusually acidic, with a mean pH of 4.4. There is a large concentration of humates (nutrients from decomposed prehistoric organic matter), plant tannins, and natural iron. This combination creates a unique water, found only in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The barrens are one of the few remaining naturally functioning biosphere’s still in existence. Because of its ecological importance, the Pine Barrens have been protected since 1978 when they became America’s first national reserve. They are also considered an International Biosphere Reserve by the UN. The Pine Barrens are and will continue to be a sanctuary for nature’s most magnificent wonders.