The Ecological Importance of the new Jersey Pine Barrens

As unique as it is ecologically diverse the New Jersey Pine Barrens or the Pinelands, is one of the most truly fascinating fragile ecosystems left in the world today. It has been labeled by the Nature Conservancy as “The Last Great Place”. Located in southern New Jersey, the Pine Barrens is a heavily forested coastal plain, covering 1.1 million acres of land or of New Jersey’s total land area.

Only a few miles from Philadelphia, surprisingly the Pine Barrens remains extremely rural and undeveloped. The Barrens got its name from early 17th century settlers who named it such after discovering that the sandy, acidic soil of the coastal plain was not good for farming due to its poor nutrient content. It is hard to imagine that any species could survive in such harsh conditions but the Pine Barrens is teaming with many diverse types of wildlife. The Pinelands is home to 855 species of plants and over 350 types of birds, animals, reptiles, and amphibians. Some are unique only to the Pinelands and 43 of these species are threatened or endangered such as the bog turtle, barred owl and the indigenous Pine Barrens tree frog.

The ecosystem itself is unique because the animals and plants that live in the Pine Barrens have adapted to the harsh conditions of this coastal plain and are thriving. Pitch pines are found on many Atlantic coastal plains and while pitch pines are found throughout the Pine Barrens, pygmy pitch pines, growing only four to five feet tall can be found throughout the Barrens as well. Their stunted growth is a result of an adaptation as protection from the wind as well as a way for the tree to conserve resources by not growing as tall as its cousin, the pitch pine.

Pitch pines and other serotinous coned trees such as Jack pines make up the majority of trees in the Pine Barrens. These trees created the Pine Barrens and continue to thrive in the Barrens due the large number of natural man made fires that start in the Barrens each year. Serotinous cones need fire to reproduce. They drop their cones and the cones can remain sealed for up to 50 years. It takes extreme heat to open these cones. Fire is common in the Barrens due to needles and leaves being continuously shed onto the forest floor. The debris builds up and is good fuel for a wildfire. Natural wildfires help clear out this debris, thus preventing a catastrophic man made fire. After a natural wildfire, serotinous cones open and spill their seeds all over the forest floor and within a few years, seedlings cover the forest floor. The newly enriched ash soil will help other types of plants to sprout as well.

It is hard for many plants to thrive in the naturally nutrient poor soil when no fire has been present. In the Barrens you will find a few species of endangered carnivorous plants that depend not on the soil for nutrition, but insects. The pitcher plant and bladderwort can be found throughout the Barrens. Although the Pine Barrens lacks the good soil necessary for farming, the Barrens produces the third highest number of cranberries in the United States. Blueberries are also grown on the coastal plain. This is due to the acidic soil that cranberries and blueberries thrive in.

One of the most ecologically unique things about the Pine Barrens is that it produces the purest drinking water in the United States. Rainwater soaks through thousands of feet of sand and gravel below the Barrens, purifying itself the entire way down. The Cohansey-Kirkwood aquifer supplies 17 trillion gallons of drinking water to Long Island. The aquifer is protected by the government as the nation’s only sole source aquifer.

The Pine Barrens, like other fragile ecosystems across the US is in danger, at risk for development and suburbanization. A special office, known as the New Jersey Pineland Commission, has been set up to control development in the Pine Barrens. Due to this truly unique ecosystem, the Pinelands National Reserve was designated in 1978 and the Barrens has been named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1983.

It is important for everyone to understand just how important it is that the Pinelands continues to be preserved. An extinction of just one species might cost humans a cure for any numerous diseases and each plant and animal that graces the Earth has values yet undiscovered.

For continued reading on the Pinelands read, “The Pine Barrens”, by John McPhee.