Ecological Approach to Managing Forests in the NJ Pine Barrens

The Future of Wildlife: An Ecological Approach to Managing Forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
by Bob Williams

Below is an article by Bob Williams. A certified forester, Bob currently consults with a wide range of private and public landowners for their forest planning, primarily in New Jersey. He is a member of the Pinelands Forest Advisory Committee within the Pinelands National Reserve. Bob is also Director of Forestry for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance Conservation Foundation.

MODIS satellite image from 2:25 PM on May 16 2007 of smoke from the Pinelands fire, courtesy of NASA
MODIS satellite image from 2:25 PM on May 16 2007 of smoke from the Pinelands fire, courtesy of NASA

New Jersey Outdoor Alliance
New Jersey Outdoor Alliance

Pine Barrens, New Jersey – -( Since 1978, when the U.S. Congress created The Pinelands National Reserve, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey have been under the regulatory jurisdiction of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which is charged with its protection. Spanning 1.1 million acres, the reserve is the largest open space on the eastern seaboard between Boston, Massachusetts, and Richmond, Virginia. It lies next to the most concentrated highway, rail, and air-traffic corridors-and the most densely populated region-in America. But if you stand on Apple Pie Hill, the highest spot (209 feet) in the Pinelands, what will you see? Not turnpikes, not trains, not airports, not people; only forests-a canopy of trees that stretches as far as the horizon.

The primary trees are pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and oak (Quercus sp.), along with Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) that trace forest streams. Cranberry bogs, teacolored rivers, a few meadows, and white sand roads punctuate this landscape. Pine and pine-oak forests are home to thousands of animals and plants, like the common yellowthroat warbler (Geothlypis trichas), turkey beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) with its striking white flower, and the blue Pine Barrens gentian (Gentiana autumnalis). While there are no natural lakes, wetlands (including streams, bogs, and cedar swamps) cover more than 385,000 acres, or 35 percent of the reserve. Historically, these natural resources gave rise to important industries. People used bog iron for cannonballs and household goods, sand for glass, and wood for shipbuilding, charcoal, lumber, paper, and fuel. Its dense pine
and oak forests, cedar and hardwood swamps, pitch pine lowlands, bogs, and marshes give the region its essential and distinctive character.

Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan

When adopted in 1979, the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) recognized the unique vegetation of the Pinelands more than any other feature. The CMP also acknowledged that proper forest management of the Pinelands forests would increase their economic value and, simultaneously, preserve and sustain the overall ecological character of the Pinelands. The CMP had it right 30 years ago, yet since then little forest management has occurred on the landscape. Lack of periodic disturbance-combined with extensive fire exclusion policies-has dramatically reduced habitat suitability to sustain several threatened and endangered species, such as the northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), and once- common species such as ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).

Ruffed grouse, classified as “common to all woodlands” in the Pinelands region in 1979, are now all but extinct there. This will be the second grouse extinction in the Pine Barrens since the loss of the heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) there in 1870, and should be an alarm that something is wrong in this fire-adapted, disturbance-dependent forest ecosystem.

A protectionist interpretation of the public policy to “preserve” the Pinelands has all but eliminated active management of the forest resources. In addition, fire suppression policies have further diminished the beneficial effects of fire in this highly fire-dependent forest ecosystem. On private lands, an ecological approach to forest management has allowed some forest management to move ahead.

Land Dimensions, the company I work for, has implemented and completed projects throughout the Pinelands that clearly demonstrate how forest management can be a crucial tool for sustaining critical habitat for a wide range of both common and rare species.

The Pinelands Region supports several globally threatened forest ecosystems. The pitch pine/shrub oak forests are highly dependent upon frequent fire events, yet most stands have been fi re excluded for 40 to 60 years. Fire exclusion has eliminated critical habitats for several rare or endangered moth species and has degraded habitat for northern pine snakes. Mechanical forest thinning has both enabled the safe return of fire and demonstrated the great potential for an ecological forestry approach. These thinnings mimic the top-killing effect of fire that results in a more open habitat needed by many rare or endangered plant and animal species.

These projects have also reduced wildland fire concerns and have mitigated the public’s health-and-safety concerns with regard to catastrophic fire. For example, on the Zemel Forest, a 1,600- acre, privately owned woodland located in the heart of the pitch pine-shrub oak forest type, the ecological approach to forest management that we have used shows promising results.

This woodland had been fire excluded in excess of 50 years. The pitch pine was thinned to remove 70 to 90 percent of the dense overstory, retaining trees of varying sizes in a random pattern across the project site. The dense overstocked shrub oak under the pine overstory was mechanically severed at ground level to enable it to re-sprout, similar to the effect of fire. The purpose of this treatment was to restore the open barrens structure in order to allow the regeneration of the native herbaceous and shrub plant communities.

Several rare species of Lepidoptera require this open habitat to feed on oak. Additionally, species such as northern pine snake utilize these critical open habitat areas for foraging,
basking, and/or nesting. The result of this silvicultural treatment after 15 years has been to restore and maintain native forest community types, and create a condition to allow fire to be returned to these stands in a safe fashion. Without fire, these stands will gradually regenerate back to the overstocked fire-excluded condition they were in previous to treatment. Fire will set back significant areas of pine regeneration. It will also sustain the plant community as a whole, thus sustaining this globally threatened forest system.

Atlantic White-Cedar

Another globally threatened forest ecosystem found in New Jersey’s Pinelands region is Atlantic White-Cedar, important both ecologically and economically for sustaining a viable forest management program in the Pinelands. Atlantic white-cedar provides habitat for several endangered or threatened species, such as Hessel’s hairstreak (Callophrys hesseli), Pine Barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii), timber rattlesnake, and several endangered plants, including swamp pink (Helonias bullata). Dr. George Zimmermann of Stockton College has been engaged in a long-term (18-year) research project on the ecology, management, and regeneration of Atlantic white-cedar, a project that enabled the New Jersey Forest Service to establish the New Jersey Atlantic white-cedar Initiative Steering Committee (ISC). Comprised of a wide range of professionals and stakeholders, ICS developed the Atlantic White-Cedar: Ecology and Best Management Practices manual for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

One of the primary objectives of this cedar initiative is to have a net gain of cedar forest type on the landscape. Atlantic white-cedar continues to be lost to uncontrolled wildfire, beaver flooding, natural tree succession, wind storms, and what appears to be insect damage. Another objective of this cedar initiative is to sustain a wide range of age-class structures across the landscape. Presently, most cedar stands are in the 60 to 80 year age class with few older age-class stands and minimal acres of younger stands. Tens of thousands of acres of this forest type are in need of management and treatment. To sustain the crucial spatial heterogeneity of this landscape, treatments have to be economically feasible. Since Atlantic white-cedar grows in wet soil conditions, operations are difficult and expensive, but they can be done. The landowner of the Ruggeri Stewardship Forest has successfully restored 15 acres of red maple to a healthy, fully stocked stand of Atlantic white-cedar along the wild and scenic Great Egg Harbor River by blending these young groups of whitecedar with several older remnant groups in his forest. Atlantic white-cedar is an early successional species and prefers full sunlight to optimize seed germination and tree growth. Additionally, cedar does not tolerate competition from woody shrubs or hardwood overstory; thus, brush control measures must be ongoing. Lastly, cedar does not tolerate over-browsing by high populations of whitetailed deer. Deer fencing is a typical postharvest treatment. One landowner quickly moved from electric fencing to coated metal deer exclusion fencing for greater success.

The range of natural variability of Atlantic white-cedar forest stands is significant. It can grow in dense monoculture stands, as well as stands of open wetland savanna types supporting many rare and endangered plants. In open savannas, many herbaceous plant species are being lost to tree succession. Again, lack of fire is the likely cause. An
ecological approach to managing these areas through the judicious removal of cedar timber in defined time frames has saved many rare plant populations. We have successfully restored Atlantic white-cedar on more than 17 privately owned forestlands, and operations are underway with many more. Anyone who visits New Jersey and sees one of these magnificent forests remains impressed.

Our forest management projects within the Pinelands National Reserve are required by regulation to “preserve native Pinelands forest types.” This goal can be difficult and expensive to achieve. However, after 20 years of managing forests in this unique landscape, I believe that successful economic utility is not mutually exclusive with protecting and
sustaining the unique biodiversity of this forest system. It’s now clear to me that an ecological approach is essential to sustaining our nation’s first national reserve, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

NJOACF Council Members:
Reef Rescue * NJ State Federation Sportsmen’s Clubs * Jersey Coast Anglers Association * Recreational Fishing Alliance * Trout Unlimited * National Wild Turkey Federation * NJ Beach Buggy Association * Hudson River Fishermen’s Association * United Bow Hunters NJ * New Jersey Council Diving Clubs * NJ Trappers Association * NJ Forestry Association * Society of American Foresters * Quail Unlimited * Ruffed Grouse Society * National Animal Interest Alliance Trust * Greater Point Pleasant Charter Boat Association * NJOA