By Michele S. Byers
When author John McPhee was researching his book The Pine Barrens in the mid-1960s, nobody knew exactly where this unique region started or ended. Its borders had not been officially mapped.
McPhee spent eight months driving, hiking and camping in this wilderness dominated by pitch pine forests, swamps and bogs. He placed Xs on his map whenever he came upon a natural or man-made boundary.
He was enchanted by the Pine Barrens – the geography, the flora and fauna, the history and the folklore. But he was not optimistic about their long-term odds of survival in the face of increasing development pressure.
In his book’s final chapter, McPhee describes standing on a promontory overlooking the site of a proposed city and international airport, and feeling convinced that the Pine Barrens were “headed slowly toward extinction.” The East Coast would soon be developed into one unbroken metropolis.
Fortunately for New Jersey, Gov. Brendan Byrne read the book and was immediately inspired. He took on the personal challenge of proving McPhee wrong, and succeeded. This 1.1-million-acre region was granted special protections to ensure survival of the wild places and the vast aquifer beneath its sandy soils.
These stories were related by McPhee, Byrne and former Gov. James Florio at a well-attended panel discussion at Princeton University on March 3. I was fortunate to be on the panel, and I shared my own personal stories of saving land in the Pine Barrens.
The panel was titled, “The Pine Barrens: The Past, the Politics and the Future.” But it could just as easily have been called “The Pines, the People and the Passion.” Passion and love for the land is what sparked the preservation efforts in the 1970s – and will keep the land preserved in the future.
For those who have only seen a blur of the Pine Barrens at 70 mph en route to the shore – you’re truly missing out! The Pine Barrens is an International Biosphere Reserve, meaning it’s a globally special region, home to plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet.
And it’s no exaggeration to say that the Pine Barrens is New Jersey’s last true wilderness. There’s nowhere else in the Garden State where paved roads are so few and far between, and where the stars are so brilliant at night.
If you were to visit the exact spot where John McPhee stood more than 40 years ago, believing the Pine Barrens were doomed to extinction, you’d be standing on permanently preserved land! That property is now part of the 4,000-acre Candace Ashmun Preserve at Forked River Mountain, named for the longest-serving member of the state Pinelands Commission.
A question raised at the panel discussion was: What will the Pine Barrens look like 50 years from now?
With over 30 years of land use protections and hundreds of thousands of acres preserved, I believe the future is bright. Those who fall in love with the Pine Barrens – as I and so many others have – will continue to defend its plants and animals and natural beauty.
If you haven’t been there, do it now. Hike, paddle, fish, bird-watch, take photos, camp, hunt or just plain hang out. There’s nothing like listening to Pine Barrens tree frogs, searching for rare plants in the woods, breathing in the pine-scented air and listening to the wind blow through treetops in the cedar swamps.
To find out more about the Pine Barrens – their ecology and the threats they face – visit the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org. For the history of the Pine Barrens and the riveting story of how they almost got developed, get a copy of John McPhee’s book. Forty-six years after its publication, it’s still a great read!
And for information about New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s preserves in the Pine Barrens, and other places around the state, go to www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.