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An Introduction to the New Jersey Pine Barrens

The New Jersey Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, is a heavily forested area covering 1.1 million acres (4,500 km²) of coastal plain across southern and central New Jersey. The name “pine barrens” refers to the area’s sandy, acidic, nutrient-poor soil, which didn’t take well to the crops originally imported by European settlers. However, these uncommon conditions led the Pine Barrens to develop a unique and diverse spectrum of plant life, especially orchids and carnivorous plants. The area is also notable for its populations of rare pygmy Pitch Pines and other plant species that depend on fire to reproduce.

Areas of Pine Barrens can occur throughout the northeastern United States from New Jersey to Maine as well as the American Midwest, Florida, and Canada. Pine barrens are plant communities that occur on dry, acidic, infertile soils dominated by grasses, forbs, low shrubs, and scattered trees; most extensive barrens occur in large areas of sandy glacial deposits, including outwash plains, lakebeds, and outwash terraces along rivers. The most common trees are the Jack Pine, Red Pine, Pitch Pine, Blackjack Oak, and Scrub Oak; a scattering of larger Oaks is not unusual. The understory is composed of grasses, sedges, and forbs, many of them common in dry prairies. Plants of the heath family, such as blueberries and bearberry, and shrubs such as prairie willow and hazelnut are common. These species have adaptations that permit them to survive or regenerate well after fire. Pine barrens support a number of rare species, including lepidoptera such as the Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) and the barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia), and plants such as the Sand-plain Gerardia (Agalinis acuta).

Barrens are dependent on fire to prevent invasion by woody species. In the absence of fire, barrens will proceed through successional stages from savanna to closed-canopy forest. Open barrens are now rare and imperiled globally, as suppression of wildfires has allowed woody vegetation to take over in most one-time barrens.

Despite these seemingly unforgiving environs, the Pine Barrens have been host to human activity since prehistoric times. Native Americans of the Lenape tribe crossed the Pine Barrens in annual migrations to the shore, hunting and camping along the way. As recent as the early 20th Century evidence of these camps could still be found in the Northern Pine Barrens. Early colonists established homesteads, farms, and formed some of the earliest industries in the area. Extensive ironworks were built with colorful names – Batsto, Hanover, Weymouth, to name a few – and provided materials for troops in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Sawmills were built, harvesting the vast cedar swamps that lie in the lowlands of the Pine Barrens. Glassworks and papermaking were small, but important, industries formed after cheaper iron found in Pennsylvania had economically devastated the Jersey forges.

Cranberrying was – and still is – an important industry in the Pine Barrens, with New Jersey being the third highest producer of the fruit in the United States. Commercial cranberry fields today are diked so they may be flooded. When the berries are ripe, they float, making harvesting a matter of flooding the field, shaking the bushes a bit, and skimming off the berries into waiting trucks. Various mechanisms have been used through the years to “shake” the bushes, with many of these innovations created by local farmers. The first-ever cultivated blueberries were developed in the Pine Barrens in 1916 through the hard work of Elizabeth White of Whitesbog, and blueberry farms are now almost as common as cranberry bogs.

Despite being so close to the metropolitan centers of New York and Pennsylvania, the harsh unforgiving life in the Pine Barrens kept settlement low. Villages mostly sprang up close to industry, and once that industry was gone these places were often largely abandoned. Settlements rarely grew very large and were mostly isolated. These close-knit communities were made up of industrious, hard-working folk who were generally friendly but wary of outsiders. The demands of eking out a living in such an unforgiving region often made luxuries as a formal education impossible, although many larger communities often had schooling available. For years, residents of the area were called “Pineys” by outsiders, as a derogatory term; today, many Pinelands residents are proud of both the name and the land on which they live.

Land use and development is strictly controlled by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which administers the Comprehensive Management Plan which details how land may be used and developed. In some areas it is impossible to build new buildings, while others – such as Whiting – are designated as growth areas and are actively being developed as suburban sprawl pushes eastward from Philadelphia and South from New York.

Several State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas make up a significant portion of the Pine Barrens. Any given day you will find hunters, hikers, horseback riders, explorers, Geocachers, photographers, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, and more out enjoying the unparalled beauty of the Pine Barrens sandy trails.

Portions of this article are from WikiPedia entires on the Pine Barrens of New Jersey as well as original content by Ben Ruset. Permission is granted to reproduce this article, providing that a link or citation is given to both WikiPedia and NJPineBarrens.com.