The Pine Barrens

Many people unfamiliar with the geography of New Jersey view the state as a mixture of sprawling suburbia and metropolis overflow. It is the most densely populated state in the country, packing in over 1,200 people per square mile. Impressively, that figure is 200 more people per square mile than second-place Delaware.

More than a few times I have heard jokes about the state’s motto: The Garden State. With so many people living in this area, how exactly can the state garner that nickname? The population density of the state is going to become an even more impressive statistic when you digest the next set of facts.

Over one-fifth of New Jersey’s area is composed of a region known as The Pine Barrens. Pinelands National Reserve – the first National Reserve in the country – and the State-designated Pinelands Area comprise over 2 million acres of land. The population density in these areas is minute. So nearly a quarter of the possibly-filled area is sparsely populated (most of the counties in the area have fewer than 100 per square mile), meaning the average figure of 1,200 people per square mile is actually a lot higher in the remaining sections! Take a look at this 3-D image of New Jersey’s population density.

Take a guess about which part of the state contains The Pine Barrens - click the image to view an interactive map

The New Jersey Pine Barrens is actually one of three – and the largest – remaining examples of an Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem. The other two are in Massachusetts and on Long Island. The name “pine barrens” refers to the sandy, acidic, nutrient-poor soil, which allows the forest to thrive but not traditional crops.

Despite the name, the barrens are rife with life. 850 species of plants, including rare pygmy pitch pines and several endemic versions of orchids, 39 mammal species, more than 300 avian species, 59 reptile and amphibian species, and 91 fish species all call the region home.

At university in New Jersey, I took a class on Evolutionary Biology, which took a field trip to the barrens. The forest was gorgeous and captivating. Standing within its boundaries felt a world away from the northern part of the state. Living in Ohio, we hear a lot of “corn” and “flat” and “rural,” but those of us who explore the wonders of the outdoors know the state has much more diversity. It’s easy to think of a state as a caricature, but all you have to do is get out there and see those things are usually wrong.

View north from a fire tower on Apple Pie Hill, the highest point in the New Jersey Pine Barrens - photo by Famartin

The region is so vast, dense, and mysterious it has taken on mythical adjectives. The Jersey Devil, the legendary monster who stalks the state and gave the local NHL team its moniker, rose in the Pine Barrens. The Sopranos, the now-classic television show, set a notable episode in Season 3 in the barrens, as mobsters attempt to dump a body in a spot no one could possibly find. No spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

The Pine Barrens – aka Pinelands or The Pines – are more than just sandy-soiled pine forest. The landscape is varied and myriad. Check out some photos of the resplendent barrens!

Photo credits: Sunrise in the Pinelands by Thomas Dolan; Wetlands Fractals by Christopher Smith; Fog Bow by Michael Neuhaus; Queen of Bald Eagle Reservoir by Ellen Bonacarti
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