First Day Hike in Pygmy Pines

Jan 09, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson Forty people came out on New Year’s Day to hike the pygmy pines in the Warren Grove section of the Bass River State Forest.

Forty people, aged from the young to the young-at-heart, decided a 6-mile hike in the Warren Grove Recreation Area section of Bass River State Forest was the best way to start the New Year. The 60-degree, sunny weather on Jan. 1 was one draw, but many expressed the desire to see for themselves just how tiny the “Pygmy Pines” are up close.

Five-foot-tall Shelly Packard, a visitor from Owings, Md., was hoping she could tower over them. It took about an hour of walking to get to the first section of the pygmy forest, where Packard was thrilled to stand over one of the shortest forests in the state.

The New Jersey Pine Barrens holds the world’s largest acreage of this globally rare forest community. According to Howard Boyd’s A Field Guide to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 acres of dwarf or pygmy forest straddling Ocean and Burlington counties. The two largest are located along the “Keith Line,” which split New Jersey into the Province of West Jersey and the Province of East Jersey around 1686. The boundary starts from a point in Eagleswood and travels northeast all the way up to the Delaware Water Gap. To the west of the line, Edward Byllynge and his trustees held sway while Sir George Cateret was given all of the eastern half to manage by the British King Charles II.

Today the east/west line forms the boundaries between Ocean, Monmouth and Burlington counties. The New Year’s Day hike was to transverse part of the Keith line (named for surveyor George Keith, who attempted to clarify disputes between the territories), but because of a rainstorm the day before, the straight path took on many twists and turns to circumvent the many deep puddles in the sand road.                     

Twenty-two excursions to mark the first day of 2019 were taking place all over the state; it’s a national program that attracts hundreds, said a participant.

The idea of a first-day excursion had also occurred to the owners of dirt bikes and ATVs, or 4-wheelers. Drivers of pickups and “monster tire” trucks intent on rolling over roads and “mudding” in the puddles were also psyched to be in the pines – to the dismay of some of the environmentalists who believe such activities are wantonly destroying the natural habitat. The “mudders,” on the other hand, were not thrilled to see such a large contingent of hikers out in their “no-man’s land.”

The giant expanse of trees should be able to accommodate many forms of recreation, but as a mudder rolled his pickup truck over a patch of endangered plants, a hiker suggested more education is needed to stop such abando.

The hike had attracted Gary Patterson, a man who was on the ground floor of saving the pinelands from development. The former elementary school teacher was recruited in 1966 to be a Pine Barrens educator at the Conservation and Environmental Studies Center in Whitesbog. This was before the establishment of the Pinelands Commission and the legislature that created the Pinelands Comprehensive Management plan. The New Jersey Pinelands Protection Act of 1979 saved the biologically odd and rich Pine Barrens from a plan to create a jetport and city smack dab in its center.

Patterson said he was an elementary school teacher in Mount Misery when renowned conservation and environmental scientist Eugene Vivian recruited him. Vivian chaired the science department at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) from 1955 to 1967. In 1966, he established the center at Whitesbog, and in 1984 also founded ACES (Associates for Conservation and Environmental Studies), which provided environmental assessments and impact studies focused on preserving the endangered species habitats.

Patterson went on to become an associate professor of environmental studies and graduate program adviser for conservation and environmental education at Glassboro and director of the Pinelands Institute for Natural and Environmental Studies at Whitesbog.

During the walk through the forest, Patterson also let slip that he himself had hired Howard Boyd, the aforementioned writer of the field guide and a renowned but self-taught expert on the region and an enthusiastic entomologist.

Having known both men for many years, Patterson had nothing but praise for their legacy, and humbly eschewed his own.

“I’m here to refresh my knowledge,” he said as we walked.

He pointed out the large area of broom-crowberry, an endangered, low-growing shrub that had spread over a portion of the road shoulder that leads to an FAA radio tower. “These are not fire tolerant,” he said. “Interestingly, their seeds are scattered by ants.”

Golden Hudsonia, another low shrub that is found in sandy patches in the barrens, appeared to be blooming out of season. The strange warm weather was to blame. “Last year, during this hike it was 16 degrees – what a difference,” said a forest guide.

There are a few theories on why these pitch pine and scrub oak forests are stunted in growth. In his field guide, Boyd said it could be a combination of many factors: infertile soils, aridity, exposure to wind and, most importantly, fires that occur once every 10 to 20 years. “These tracts support a growth of unusually short, scrubby, four- to 10-foot high forest of mature trees. The dominant trees are a closed-cone (serotinous) race of pitch pine whose cones open only after being subjected to very high temperatures, such as those created by fire. Over succeeding generations of evolutionary development it appears these pines may be developing a genetic variation from more normal pitch pines.” — from Boyd’s A Field Guide to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Patterson related a different theory he had developed from an experiment he made back in the day as the state was clearing landing areas of Coyle Air Field off Route 72. Coyle Field is where the New Jersey State Forest Fire Division musters its airborne fire suppression (airplanes that drop water or chemicals on wildfires) and also sends firefighters to other parts of the country when needed.

Patterson said he and another colleague from the Pinelands Institute had used high-pressure hoses to blast some pygmy pine trees out of the ground and then studied the growth of rings in the root systems. The roots closest to the surface were around 10 years old ,the trees having been burned in a fire 10 years previously. The older, deeper taproots were between 90 and 150 years old, said Patterson. From this he surmised the trees were pruned by fire, much as bonsai trees are pruned by gardeners.

There may come a time when the frequent regeneration of the same plant root will be exhausted, something Patterson called “senility.” Then oaks will predominate the plains instead.

Along the fringe of the “Little Plains” area where the hikers were exploring was a series of unused cranberry bogs once belonging to the Cervetto family of Warren Grove, but now preserved by the state. This area was swamp with beaver lodges turning them into ponds.

More hiking brought the adventurers to a ridge overlooking the pine plains, a wilderness area of pine tops tinged with the winter sunset. Will 2019 be a year of peace and prosperity? Here in the midst of green waves of forest, with silence broken only by a twittering chickadee, the turmoil of politics seemed irrelevant and far away.  

— Pat Johnson

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