Could An Invasive Species Actually Save New Jersey's Iconic Pine Barrens?

Southern Pine Beetles have killed off millions of trees in this popular forested area, but that might not be a bad thing.

January 30, 2018
pine forest
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New Jersey’s Pine Barrens is the place of legends. Kids growing up in the Garden State hear tales of the Jersey Devil, a strange beast that was long-rumored to live somewhere in the heavily forested region, along with stories of ghosts and abandoned villages and sightings of carnivorous plants and wild orchids.

The Pine Barrens consists of 1.1 million acres of protected, open space, a real rarity in the country’s most densely populated state. The Barrens recharges a 17 trillion (yes, t for trillion) gallon freshwater aquifer and boasts a specialized microclimate that creates short periods of frost, and the “sugar sand” and low levels of development mean the woods can get very, very cold at night, but still have a short frost season.

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The Pine Barrens covers part of seven counties in the state and make up 22% of New Jersey’s land area. At one point there were sawmills and charcoal-making and glass factories deep in the pines. An intrepid hiker today can find abandoned, eerie evidence of the ghost towns and industries that once thrived in the area’s acidic, sandy soil that supports millions of pitch pines and other species. (Check out 10 of America's most bucket list-worthy hikes.)

It’s also where a classic episode of The Sopranos has Paulie Walnuts and Christopher chase and lose the Russian, and spend a bitter night in the Siberian conditions of a Pine Barrens winter. But weather has been warming lately in the Pines, and that’s caused the deaths of millions of trees.

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Meet One Cause Of Tree Destruction: The Southern Pine Beetle

There’s been a quite a lot of press about the recent appearance of the Southern pine beetle, a rapacious, insatiable invader that feeds on pine trees. The beetles swarm a tree, bore holes through its bark, and kill a tree within four weeks of invasion. The beetles move too quickly from tree to tree for any effective eradication methods. Removing dead trees and creating a safe zone by cutting down healthy trees means that loggers have to build roads in the pristine barrens to get to the sick trees.

By this point, millions of trees in the Pine Barrens have been decimated because of the pine beetle. The only way to kill the beetle is by having several freezing nights in a row—the cold kills the beetles and slows their reproduction rate the next year. The last few winters have been too warm—but the winter of 2017-18 is already infamous on the East Coast for producing both a bomb cyclone and low temperatures that rival those in Antarctica. The mighty JFK Airport was closed, flooded, and stunned by the cold. Is this the winter that could kill the beetle and restore order to the Pine Barrens?

 

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A New Look At Forest Ecology: Is The Beetle Really New To The Pine Barrens?

The recent cold has been a boon for the trees. The destruction of the Southern pine beetle has slowed in recent years, after a terrible outbreak in the 2000s. But as it turns out, the reports of the Southern pine beetle have been greatly exaggerated. What looks like a disaster to an outsider is sometimes part of an ecosystem.

First of all, the beetle is no stranger to the forest. Emile DeVito, the manager of Science and Stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, says the Southern pine beetle has been in the Barrens since the 1920s. “Nothing is going to eradicate them,” he says. “Beetles have always been there and trees are going to die. That’s not a problem for the ecosystem.”

It’s a surprising statement. Every year, there is great concern expressed about the destruction caused by the beetle. But to the experts, the beetle’s presence is simply one part of the ecosystem mosaic.

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Seeing The Forest—Not Just Trees

DeVito is an expert on the Pine Barrens and helps make land stewardship decisions on behalf of the Conservation Foundation that affect biological diversity. The Southern pine beetle is just a single piece of the forest’s puzzle. The real issue is how the beetle has so much to eat—in other words, the forest is too homogenous. DeVito explains: “The trees we have are too uniform. They’re almost all the same age, too dense, and they’re all too small. It’s so easy for the insects to ravage the area.”

 

The solution is to manage the land the way the Lenni Lenape tribe did when they lived in the woods: burn it.

Not a controlled burn, either, but a regular, land- and tree-clearing fire that removed the underbrush and created pockets of forest with different ages. The soil in the Pine Barrens is highly acidic sugar sand, so there’s never going to be a huge variation in the types of trees that the area can support. But there should be a healthy range of ages, size of trees, as well as gaps between the trees. Trees will die because of the beetles, which is not always a bad thing. As DeVito puts it, “We want the trees to die in patterns that are beneficial to the ecosystem.”

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A regular prescribed burn will create that pattern. The goal is managing this mighty system is trying to create a more natural forest.

“Southern Pine Beetles create patchiness in a system that has become far too homogeneous, and patchiness is good for many species,” DeVito explains. “A more natural fire frequency and intensity is also desirable, and it would help stave-off widespread damage by periodic insect outbreaks.”