Featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Backcountry Journal
The predawn quiet cracked to the sound of bellows and cries from within the pines. Their shrieks rolled deep into howls, sending primordial shivers up my spine as I tried to fumbled through the darkness. Adrenaline ruled my pace and I looked up to get a gauge of time. Sunrise was only a half-hour away. I had to cover the distance quick.
I was in the heart of a newly-acquired state parcel within the Pinelands National Reserve, an area noted for its sandy and acidic soils, contiguous tracts of pine-oak forests, and endemic species. The Reserve lies within the geographically restricted Atlantic-coastal pine barren ecoregion of southern New Jersey. The region’s name derives from early settlers who failed to farm conventional crops on the nutrient poor soils, and misleadingly labelled the landscape as barren.
Despite their dismay, the Pinelands hosts one of the most unique ecosystems on the eastern seaboard. Large expanses of pitch-pine and Jersey pine, with sparing stands of black-jack and white oak mark the upland habitats. At their bases lie a thick understory of highbush blueberry, sheep laurel, and most notably, black huckleberries. In the lowlands, swamps of Atlantic white-cedar predominate, where their tannins cause the water to flow with a golden hue. This unique composure of habitats provides a home for species found hardly anywhere else in the world, such as the state-threatened Pine Barrens treefrog and the state-endangered Pine Barrens Bellwort. For sportsmen like myself, the landscape provides an escape from the surrounding populaces of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
The day before, I had seen a tom courting a harem of hens in an opening a couple miles up the trail. An abundance of scat and dust wallows surrounded the area, and my plan was to make it there before they fled their roosts.
As I closed the distance, coyote howls gave way to a symphony of treefrogs and whippoorwills. Crossing the stream where a beaver dam had been washed out, I noticed fresh chews on young cedars and a still-wet slide on the lakeshore. A wood duck flushed from the lake and I watched his silhouette against a sky diffused into shades of purple and deep blue. I readjusted my bootlace gun strap and started again down the sandy trail with the horizon taking color.
Long before the area had been established as a National Reserve, the Pinelands was a place of economic experimenting. Early on, bog iron mining was the prominent enterprise. The ancient streams and lakebeds of the Pines held vast stores of rust-resistant iron ore, but the mining process was labor intensive, and eventually beat out by more effectual means elsewhere in the country. Filling the void was an ambitious real estate movement. Entrepreneurs filed false claims to large tracts of Pinelands land and advertised their sale in New York City. While this too proved unsuccessful, urban sprawl continued to mount within the regions of New York City and Philadelphia, and so did the developmental pressures within the Pines. In 1964, a proposal for the development of a supersonic jetport and a city supporting 250,000 people was released. In response, an outcry from biologists, naturalists, nonprofit conservation groups, and sportsmen sought to see Pinelands preserved in a way to protect its land and ecological rarities, while promoting its historic outdoor recreation values.
In 1968 John McPhee published his best-seller The Pine Barrens. His influential analysis of Pineland’s life and ecology fueled the conservation campaign. In his book, McPhee feared the Pinelands were “headed slowly toward extinction” and that the area would one day become consumed by “the great unbroken Eastern city”.
McPhee’s premonition, thankfully and in large part due to his advocacy, never reached fruition. After 14 years of fighting the jetport proposal, the Pinelands was designated as a National Reserve under the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, the first and largest of its kind. The reserve encompasses 1.1 million acres of state, federal, and private land, making its total acreage larger than both the Allegheny National Forest and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The land is managed to promote outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and hiking, while any prospects of large-scale development are dismantled.
Daylight broke as I found the opening. Brushing the needles and oak leaves from its base, I sat with my back against an old pine and rested my shotgun on a bent knee. The landscape was painted into new form by the sun and the melodies of songbirds took the place of treefrogs and whippoorwills. Nearby, a tom thundered as he flew from his night’s roost.
Over the course of time, New Jersey has gained a reputation for lacking any real wilderness. But the Pinelands National Reserve renegades this stereotype.
Within its boundaries, I am reminded that conservation-driven directives and impassioned advocacy are integral in preserving the landscapes we value most. I am also reminded that there are still wild places to be explored in my home state. It feels good to know there is something left to protect.