PINELANDS NATIONAL RESERVE, New Jersey – What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about New Jersey? Probably not forests or wildfire, more likely it’s an image of dense cities, or industrial manufacturing and pollution.
Our preconceived ideas need to be challenged on a regular basis if we want to be knowledgeable citizens. I had my biases rearranged after I visited New Jersey for my younger daughter’s graduation. I flew in an out of Newark, an accurate basis for the stereotype, but I was to learn how limiting that stereotype is.
After the graduation festivities, we met up with Bob Williams, a forester and owner of Pine Creek Forestry, who gave us a day of his time touring the 1.1 million acre Pinelands National Reserve, which is also designated a biosphere reserve.
The reserve has a dotting of rural homes, communities and businesses, along with cranberry bogs, blueberry farms and miles and miles of primarily pine forests, with sprinklings of hardwoods and Atlantic white cedar forests. It was not my stereotypical picture of New Jersey.
This was only the first of several revelations that day. Having spent most of my life in the forests of the western U.S., this day was a delightful exploration of some significant similarities and stark contrasts.
Williams started by saying, “The most significant wildfire damages could likely be here in the pinelands, with many thousands of homes and potentially lives lost, and with the smoke filling New York City.”
This was a topic thoroughly explored by Rolling Stone last year. He explained that over the past 40 to 50 years, the lack of management in much of the forest has developed dense pine stands with understory shrubs that can be explosive in a wildfire situation.
The story of dense flammable forests was familiar to my Western ear.
He took us to a number of different forests that he manages for clients that have been thinned and then burned in the dormant (February/March) time of the year when the pines are very resistant to the effects of fire.
A number of the clients have cranberry bogs and water quality is vital to their business, so the management of the forests surrounding them is critical to maintaining that quality.
I asked about forest conditions pre-European settlement and Williams said the historic descriptions indicate the forests were open and that settlers could drive a horse and wagon through the trees. Fire was used by the Indians that lived here, another similarity to the West.
Williams has been managing forests in the area for several decades and he shared how his management has evolved over time as he tries to have it reflect ecological processes and the values important to his clients.
The combination of harvesting and regular burning helps reduce the potential intensity and effects of a wildfire on the owner’s land, but it also greatly benefits the local fire departments as they deal with wildfires that start in the area, although only a tiny fraction of the lands are being treated this way.
Williams and the landowners struggle with the fact that almost all of the local wood processing plants are gone so they have to ship the trees they harvest much farther for processing, making the treatments less economical, another commonality with much of the interior west.
An intriguing twist to the day was when Williams talked about the enhanced biodiversity as a result of the treatments and the monitoring work that New Jersey Audubon has done to verify the results.
Twelve to fifteen years ago, Williams and one of his clients were approached by New Jersey Audubon to put in some monitoring plots. Williams was skeptical at first, as New Jersey Audubon and most other environmental/conservation organizations had long fought to stop treatments his clients had been implementing.
Confident in the benefits, they agreed to the monitoring with a promise they would have access to all the information and that it be released.
I approached John Parke, stewardship project director of New Jersey Audubon to learn more about their work, and Parke shared several documents and photos from their work and encouraged me to talk with Don Donnelly director of forestry programs with New Jersey Audubon.
They shared that the New Jersey Audubon used to be opposed to forest management, but that changed as they started seeing greater abundance of rare and threatened species in treated areas.
As they shared the observations, Donnelly indicated, “Skeptics said prove it.” This led to monitoring by Audubon and state biologists and herpetologists (reptile and amphibian specialists) to quantify the results. It also led to the development of trust and a productive working relationship between Williams and New Jersey Audubon.
This collaborative behavior from former antagonists is also seen out West, but the distrust is still common as well.
The study shows a greater number of corn snakes, timber rattlers and the northern pine snakes, all listed as either threatened or endangered. They have also seen large increases in many ground nesting birds, like nighthawks. Clearly the snakes have benefited from those bird increases. For the last three years, New Jersey Audubon has released northern bobwhites in these managed forests in an effort to re-establish this species where it used to occur but was locally extirpated. After three years, they are encouraged as they see survivors and offspring of previous releases mating with new releases.
New Jersey Audubon has seen such benefits from forest management in the Pinelands Reserve and in hardwood forests in northern New Jersey, that seven years ago it hired Donnelly to work with forest landowners and the state to expand the management of forests to improve habitats.
The Auduboners challenged their past thinking and expanded their perspective. John Cecil, stewardship director for New Jersey Audubon, indicated some other environmental groups and landowners still actively resist forest management, as they are stuck in their past preconceptions, but they are trying to change that with the scientific evidence, field tours of demonstration forest treatments, and time spent by Williams, Donnelly, John Cecil and others helps open people’s minds to a new way of thinking.
Just so, my preconceived notions of New Jersey have been permanently altered.