New Jersey: Small state, big diversity
New Jersey may be the fourth smallest state, but what it lacks in size is made up in amazing diversity. From the rugged Highlands to sandy ocean beaches, and from the Pine Barrens to tidal marshes along the Delaware Bayshore, New Jerseyans are never far from a complete change of scenery!
And although we’re well known as an urban state – the most densely populated in the nation - a remarkable 42 percent of our land, about 2 million acres, is forested!
It wasn’t always that way. Early European settlers cleared virtually all of the deciduous hardwood forests on tillable soil for agriculture. Swamps and steep slopes were timbered repeatedly during the colonial era, resulting in denuded landscapes with few forests. But after the Industrial Revolution began drawing farmers to the cities, forests once again started to mature on cutover timberlands, and abandoned agricultural landscapes reverted to post-agricultural woodlands.
Today, New Jersey’s forests that were repeatedly timbered but whose soils escaped the plow, are recovering best, with fewer invasive species and the highest diversity. A few notable pockets of primeval forest that even escaped the colonial axe can still be found!
Did you know that this state we’re in has at least a dozen distinct forest types? They’re best described in the 1971 classic Vegetation of New Jersey by Beryl Robichaud and Murray F. Buell.
Based on the book’s classifications, here’s a quick guide to New Jersey’s varied forest types and where to see them:
Floodplain and Swamp Forests
Northern New Jersey Swamp Forest. These forested wetlands are dominated by pin oak, swamp white oak and red maples. Add in shagbark hickory and sweetgum! Hike the trails of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area, our nation’s first federal Wilderness Area, to feel the pulse of the swamp!
Northern New Jersey Floodplain Forest. The Bull’s Island Natural Area, south of the footbridge over the Delaware River in the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park showcases massive sycamore and silver maple trees, and some giant tulip, ash, and walnut trees.
Inner Coastal Plain Swamp Forest. These forests have abundant sweetgum, red maple and pin oak trees, with some hickory, white oak, black oak and black gum. One good place to experience this type of forest is Historic Walnford Park on the Crosswicks Creek in Monmouth County.
Outer Coastal Plains Swamp Forest. Visit the Evert Trail Preserve in Burlington County or Allaire State Park in Monmouth County to see Outer Coastal Plain Swamp Forests, where southern species like black gum, sweetbay magnolia and American holly trees abound, and where huge flocks of American robins spend the winter. In the remote Bear Swamp Natural Heritage Priority Site in Cumberland County, ancient trees between 300-500 years old are commonplace. When the Bald Eagle dwindled to one nesting pair in NJ in the 1980s, Bear Swamp was the last refuge. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the NJ Endangered Species Program, Bald eagles have swelled to over 150 pairs statewide!
Atlantic White Cedar Swamps. These evergreen masterpieces are just beginning to return to their former grandeur after centuries of exploitation, going back to the days of the British clipper ships! Visit the Shinn’s Branch Natural Area in Brendan Byrne State Forest, dedicated to the founder of the State Natural Areas System David F. Moore, or the Dryden Kuser Natural Area in High Point State Park, where you can immerse yourself in a primeval evergreen swamp!
Mixed Oak Forests of Northern NJ. White, black and red oaks are the dominant trees in this type of forest, which can be seen at numerous open space lands throughout northern NJ. The Hutcheson Memorial Forest in Somerset County is one of the oldest forests in the mid-Atlantic states, having last experienced a fire around 1590, and having never been logged. Regular tours are led by Rutgers University.
Hemlock-Mixed Hardwoods Forest. Check out the Tillman Ravine Natural Area in Stokes State Forest, Sussex County, to see a magnificent forest of evergreen hemlocks. Unfortunately, the woolly adelgid and elongate hemlock scale, both invasive pest insect from Asia, has caused a great deal of decline in our mature hemlock forests. Biological control methods provide some hope for eventual recovery.
Sugar Maple-Mixed Hardwoods Forest. Diverse in number of tree species, these forests are beautiful in all seasons, with their variety of shrubs like witch hazel, viburnum and spicebush. One great place to see this type of forest is on moist, east facing slopes in High Point State Park in Sussex County.
Chestnut Oak Forest. Chestnut Oak forests can be seen along the Appalachian Trail along the Kittatinny Ridge in High Point State Forest and Stokes State Forest. The winter climate is so severe here that tree tops are frequently broken off by ice storms and high winds, thus keeping down the height of the forest.
Beech-Oak Forest of South Jersey. This forest type is dominated by American beech and Red Oak, white oak, tulip tree, and American holly. An ancient stand can be toured at Little Woods, between Creek Road and the Rancocas River in Moorestown, Burlington County.
Pine Barrens Oak Forest. Black, white and chestnut oaks are the most common trees in this forest type, with and understory of lowbush blueberry and huckleberry, visible around the deserted village of Washington, east of Batsto in Wharton State Forest. Belleplain State Forest hosts a more widespread, species diverse oak forest on the more nutrient rich soils of the southern Pine Barrens.
Pitch Pine/Scrub Oak Barrens. This globally rare forest occurs in abundance at Brendan Byrne and Wharton State Forests in Burlington County… and also at High Point State Park in Sussex County. The Pygmy Pines or Pine Plains, a genetically-stunted version of this forest type, has the highest wildfire frequency of any forest in North America, due to the lack of nearby rivers and wetlands that block wind-driven wildfires. The East Plains Natural Area, along the entrance road to the Warren Grove Bombing Range along the west side of Rout 539 showcases New Jersey’s most unique natural wonder.
Maritime Dune Forest. Shifting sands on barrier islands are colonized almost exclusively by trees and shrubs whose seeds are dispersed by birds. American holly, black cheery, hackberry, bayberry, and red cedar dominate the dune landscapes of Sandy Hook National Recreation Area and the Island Beach State Park Natural Areas. The few maritime forests that have escaped the bulldozer are probably New Jersey’s most endangered forest type, threatened by accelerating sea level rise and salt water inundation during extreme storm events.
Enjoy New Jersey’s forests in all their diversity! To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org
or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
. And if you are dying for more information about New Jersey's forests, buy the updated 1994 version of the book Plant Communities of New Jersey
at the Rutgers University Press website.