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A View From The Overlook: Sometimes Bad Things Don't Happen -- The Pine Lands Reserve

A view of the Pine Barrens from the fire tower on Apple Pie Hill on the border of Tabernacle and Woodland townships, Burlington County, New Jersey. Photo by Famartin via Wikipedia.

Every so often, but not often enough, environmentally bad things don’t happen. One example was the predicted destruction of a unique ecosystem: The Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

It was a pretty safe prediction, almost on the order of the sun coming up.

The Pine Barrens, the last large wild area on the Eastern seaboard between Virginia and Maine, was directly in the path of a projected Goliath of a mega city; a city that would stretch “unbroken from Boston to Richmond; A corridor of one great compression of industrial shapes, industrial sounds, industrial air, and thousands upon thousands of houses webbing over the spaces between the factories.”

In 1967, John McPhee published The Pine Barrens, an elegy for a place, an ecosystem, and a way of life that McPhee believed was doomed in the very near future. Recently, last week as a matter of fact. My wife and I took a kayak trip down one of “wild and scenic” rivers of the Pine Barrens: The Great Egg Harbor Wild and Scenic River, which empties into the sea about five miles from Atlantic City (of boardwalk and Donald Trump fame).

We had done the Mullica, another Pine Barrens river, the previous year and Joan had been enchanted with the wild beauty of a paddle through the pine lands and had wanted to do it again. So, 45 years after McPhee had published his farewell to the Pinelands, we would take another look at what had not gone wrong in the preservation of wild nature.

Enter The Barrens To Experience Them

A drive down a Pine Barrens road to say, Atlantic City, presents you with a not too inspiring green wall of trees 40-60 feet high on both sides of the road. The best way of seeing the Barrens would be via kayak, which is what we were about to do.

“Rivers of the Pine Barrens are classified as ‘easy and not challenging; suitable for novices," but as John Sinton remarks in his Water, Earth, and Fire, fallen trees, swift current, submerged logs and a meandering channel “(P)rovide the expert paddler a sophisticated day of maneuvering."

As the Pine Barrens are within an easy drive of two major metropolitan areas, New York City and Philadelphia, it is best to plan your kayak trip for the weekdays if possible. We rented our kayaks at Mays Landing and were driven upstream to the put-in for an 8-mile, four-hour paddle down the Great Egg.

We were offered a choice of tandem or single kayaks. We own a tandem back home and thus chose one. However, if you haven’t done a lot of paddling with the same partner in a tandem, I advise very strongly that you and your partner get singles. There is a reason that tandem kayaks are called “divorce boats.”

Singles are much easier for the novice to maneuver, and best of all, you have only yourself to blame for any problem.

The river was tea brown with tannin, but otherwise clear down to the sandy bottom. The current was surprisingly fast for such flat appearing country. There would be no signs of humanity at least in the upper reaches of the river, but the Barrens had been touched by industry and extraction since the early 18th century. The forest that was passing in review had been “harvested” at least eight times in historical memory by humankind or fire.

In spite of this, the forest was quietly awesome. Despite the namesake, there seemed to be more oak trees than pines and, indeed, there were some 11 species of oak, plus hybrids. There was also the occasional White Cedar, perhaps the most valuable tree in the forest beloved for its decay resistant wood.

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NPS graphic.

The rich mixture of conifers and deciduous trees made for an always-changing panorama. Joan has a special affinity for turtles and the Barrens rewarded her with the sight of a snapping turtle the size of a wash tub.

Big, Even By Western Standards

The Pine Barrens Reserve is huge, even by Western standards, over one million acres, more than the size of Yosemite or Grand Canyon. So why isn’t it a national park or at least a national monument? Good question, neighbors! The short (and snobbish) answer is that it “(D)oesn’t meet national park standards.”

Aside from the fact that “national park standards” dissolve like morning mist in the heat of powerful congressional delegations (See Cuyahoga National Park), the United Nations would beg to differ about the ecological and cultural value of the Pinelands. UNESCO proclaimed the Pine Barrens an “International Biosphere Reserve in 1983. (Actually, since “barrens” has a negative connotation, the preferred and official name is the prim “New Jersey Pinelands” but the “Pineys” continue to call it the Pine Barrens).

So what is an “International Biosphere Reserve”? It is an attempt to deal with the fact that you often have unique and valuable ecosystems with live, dreaming, thinking, and voting populations of humans already on board. The Pine Barrens comes equipped with 700,000 people and some 70 towns and villages, all of who have to be consulted.

The Biosphere Reserve is an attempt to do just that with a three-prong mission to (A) preserve the unique ecology; (B) provide the locals with a sustainable, non-destructive livelihood, and; (C) provide research and education demonstrating how the above might be accomplished. Rather than attempting the impossible, that being the establishment of a national park (Pineys like to hunt, trap, and chop wood), Congress established America’s first “National Reserve,” the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978, an attempt to deal with Nature and a resident population.

In 1979, the State of New Jersey, which owns most of the public lands, followed up with the Pinelands Protection Act, which controls and guides development, leaning toward the status quo.

Does it work?

Purists would say not nearly enough. However, conservation is the art of the possible. It does seem to stop the big, bad stuff. John McPhee described a project that would have ended the Pine Barrens as we know it: A 35,000-acre airport, the largest in the world, serving New York City and Philadelphia, connected to those cities by bullet trains traveling 150 mph. That project seems to be dead for the moment.

Who's In Charge?

I was a bit puzzled by who, exactly, was the “National” in Pinelands National Preserve. Was it US Forest Service (multiple-use and all that)? Turns out to be the National Park Service, but just barely. There is no visitor center or even office and of course, no sign of the familiar Smoky Bear hat.

The NPS keeps an extremely low profile (or target) disbursing monies behind the scene and not getting directly involved: Probably a reason for that. We saw the first of the two bridges that signaled the end of our float on the Great Egg. It had been a perfect Pine Barrens day: sunny breezy, low humidity, and no greenhead flies. We would be back.

Fortunately, we would not have to hurry; thanks to the efforts of many conservationists, including himself, John McPhee’s elegy for the Pine Barrens was premature.

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I cannot disagree that the river tour is a wonderful way to experience the Pines. But as a local, I can tell you and take you on Pineland adventures just as spectacular. Your description of a drive along a tree-lined road as "not too inspiring" is dismaying. Try it on a bike! Better yet, do it on a mountain bike along one of the hundreds of miles of trails that snake through the woods. Then, out in the middle of this wilderness, stop and get off the bike. Stand perfectly still and bask in the wonder of absolute stillness right in the middle of what many would otherwise call the "armpit" of the US. Just last weekend I did just that at the Carranza Memorial. The silence was mesmerizing, broken only by the sounds of towhees during the day, and whip-poor-wills at night. After that, join me in the elusive search for a spring bubbling up from the trillion-gallon aquafir just a few feet beneath where you stand. Refresh yourself with the best water on earth. It's much more satisfying than paddling through it.

Ealier this week another National Preserve got its Visitor's Center. The Pinelands needs one too. People need to know we're not just a joke on a bunch of sitcoms and TV dramas.

This is a great read. Having grown up in South Jersey I really miss the Pine Barrens and all the hiking, fishing, and relaxing canoe or kayaking u can do. This makes me want to plan a trip back home.

This is great news and a great piece. Thank you!

Thank you, I really enjoyed this piece.

I haved lived in South Jersey for 66 years and spend a lot of time in the pine barrens kayaking and hiking. I regard the "barrens" as a national treasure, but unfortunately the area is not treated as such. I've come across so many places in the pines that are covered with trash. Although a lot of this is due to the ignorant, I also blame the State of New Jersey and its apathy toward the pinelands. The State realizes that there is a huge demand from the public to partake in the recreational benefits of the pinelands, and NJ encourages this, but the State refuses to direct sufficient resources to maintaining this treasure. One of the State's policy flaws is relying on a carry in, carry out policy for trash. It doesn't work. I was at Oswego Lake last year, a popular recreational area, and observed that the whole place was covered in trash. Picnickers had left their trash in garbage bags thinking it would be picked up, and animals had gotten into the bags. The State needs to institute a better trash removal system and monitor key areas of the pines more closely. Some of this could be done by volunteers.

I enjoyed your piece on the barrens, but you've only scratched the surface in your area kayaking. Next time try the upper Batsto and Mullica Rivers and the Wading River.

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