The trees lining Route 206 still show signs of the fire that damaged nearly 2,000 acres of the Wharton State Forest last year.
Most of the branches are devoid of foliage and the bark is scorched black.
But on the ground, species of rare threatened and endangered plant life are thriving in the aftermath of the devastating fire.
Area environmentalists claim that not only was the arrival of these plants expected, but that portions of the Pinelands should be allowed to burn more often – in a controlled setting – to help the plants grow.
Southern New Jersey wildfires were once allowed to run their course, allowing the Pine Barrens’ ecosystem to regenerate. The lack of overhead foliage and shade helps new plants take root and grow. The Lenape Indians would burn sections of forest intentionally to increase their farming capabilities.
“There are some historical accounts that southern New Jersey used to be constantly on fire,” New Jersey Conservation Foundation ecologist Emile DeVito said.
Times have changed, however.
Local wildlife photographer Michael Hogan said he has spent hours walking through the woods in search of rare discoveries, such as the Pine Barrens gentian and wandlike goldenrods species he found on the site of last October’s wildfire.
“It’s so cool to get out here, because you never know what you’ll see,” said Hogan, of Weymouth Township, who is also a member of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Weymouth Township Environmental Commission.
The significance of the plants is lost on most laymen.
But for those in the know, the violet petals of the Pine Barrens gentians – classified as a threatened species – are breathtaking symbols of the Pinelands unique ability to resurrect so soon after a violent wildfire.
And the towering-yellow stems of the wand-like goldenrods, also a threatened species, are an invitation to venture beyond the roadside and into the ever-changing Pine Barrens.
“It’s tough, because you want more people to appreciate this, but if more people knew where they were, they’d probably be gone,” Hogan said of the tendency for rare plants to disappear due to thoughtless – and illegal – collectors after their location becomes public knowledge. “Most people don’t realize many of these plants can’t be transplanted. That is why they are so rare in the first place.”
Hogan said the arrival of these rare plants could be just the beginning.
“This is so exciting, because they’re here less than a year after the fire,” he said. “I can’t imagine what we’ll be able to find here next year.”
Up from the ashes
Wildfire is no stranger to the Pine Barrens.
In fact, it is what helped make the them unique.
“Wildfire created the Pine Barrens. There have been fires here for 10,000 years,” DeVito said. “It is essential for creating all of the things that make the Pine Barrens special. Not just the rare plants, but the entire Pine Barrens ecosystem.”
In addition to allowing sunlight in by burning the leaves and branches that create a canopy, the heat of the fire also helps to release nutrients from specific types of soil fungi and pine tree fibers.
DeVito said fire is particularly important in helping the nutrient cycle in wetlands areas.
“For example, wand-like goldenrods grow in somewhat wet soil,” DeVito said. “When the conditions allow for fire to burn well enough in wet areas, it helps create a habitat suitable for them to grow.”
Let it burn
One of the reasons many of the rare Pinelands plants and wildlife are on threatened and endangered lists is because wildfires are not allowed to burn in the Pinelands as much as they once were.
“(Hundreds of years ago) fires would burn halfway across the state,” DeVito said. “Now most don’t burn more than a few acres, or sometimes even a few yards.”
There is a simple reason for this.
“We do a good job putting them out,” he said. “The forest fire service is constantly putting out fires and understandably so.”
DeVito said the Pine Barrens’ ecosystem could be helped if portions of the Pine Barrens were fireproofed so if a wildfire starts within those areas it can be allowed to burn.
“Forestry can help get sunlight in, but we don’t know how close we can get with it to recreating what fire can do,” DeVito said. “But there is certainly no way for it to do everything fire can do.”
The plan is easier said than done, however.
“It would be a lengthy process, but the state is bankrupt and there aren’t enough people to do all that work,” DeVito said.
Plus the idea of letting potentially deadly fires run their course is an unpopular one.
“You could fireproof to created a safety next, but what if it doesn’t work?” DeVito asked. “Wildfires can be incredibly dangerous. Who is going to make that call?”
But without something being done, DeVito said, the Pine Barrens could eventually lose their character.
“It’s exhilarating to be able to witness the way nature has worked for the last 10,000 doing all of the things that created the Pine Barrens. We have an ethical responsibility to make sure that in 500 years they’re still here,” DeVito said. “And if we don’t maintain the plant species and wildlife that is important to the Pine Barrens, it will not be the Pine Barrens anymore. All it would be is an uninteresting patch of forest.”