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The resiliency of the Pinelands

By | April 1st, 2016

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A stream corridor turned into a defacto mudding arena in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest

Note: This piece by PPA’s Director of Conservation Science, Ryan Rebozo, was originally published as an editorial in the Burlington County Times on March 28, 2016.  It was written to expand further on statements made in WHYY radio report (90.9 FM) broadcast on March 21, 2016 about the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s draft plan restrict motor vehicle access in Wharton State Forest.  During that radio story a self-described dirt-bike rider used the argument of resiliency as support for their opposition to put stronger protection in place for Wharton State Forest.

Read or listen to the WHYY Radio report Plans to close roads in Wharton State Forest kicking up dust among locals

On March 21st, Newsworks on WHYY (90.9 FM) ran a short segment on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s rescinded Motorized Access Plan, a plan that would have designated which sand roads in Wharton State Forest are suitable for motor vehicle activity, and which are better suited for foot, horseback, and bicycling activity. These designations were to be assigned based on accessibility, natural resources, and critical habitat. The piece used audio clips of myself and others commenting on this particular issue. I took note of one argument by a dirt-biker who made the claim that the Pinelands isn’t fragile because it survived the industrial revolution. 

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Pine Barrens Gentian (Gentiana autumnalis)

This seems to be a talking point for those in opposition to the Motorized Access Plan as variants of the same point made several times in the past, often citing past clear cuts of the forest. At face value, I find it inherently difficult to accept using the effects of local industry and the livelihoods of those in the area as a test of an ecosystem’s resiliency when the conversation is actually about motorized recreation. Such a blanket statement about the ecology of the area is riddled with errors, namely, the frequency of disturbance. In industry, a resource is used or extracted until it is no longer profitable to do so. This is very different from the repetitive, year-round vehicular disturbance that offers no opportunity for recovery of the impacted areas, which are more often than not wet or muddy areas that are slower to recover than upland sites.

Of course, such blanket statements of an ecosystem’s resiliency can only be made with dangerous assumptions, one being that everything in the Pinelands is equally resilient and will respond the same way. There are many different habitat types in the Pinelands, each with their own suite of species and characteristics. Wetlands, uplands, and areas of ephemeral inundation do not respond to disturbances in the same manner . Saturated soils are some of the most impacted and can take decades to respond physically. Another assumption that is made is that when the forests of the Pinelands grew back after industry, they recovered to their pre-disturbance condition. We do not know all of what was lost in the transition from natural area to industrial use and back again. Those species that are nearby and common are those that will colonize an area made open by disturbance, especially when the disturbance deviates from natural occurrences in terms of intensity and frequency.

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An off-road vehicle driver intruding onto a devastated wetland area in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest

Another talking point in relation to this issue is that “mother nature” causes more damage in major storms than abusive motor-vehicle use. This conveniently ignores disturbance frequency and the stochastic nature of storms. Major storms may hit a few times a year and the areas that are most impacted will be randomly distributed across a landscape. This again is very different from the repeated motorized disturbance that disproportionately targets wetlands and the same areas over and over again. Using these blanket talking points as if they are rooted in some type of science or at all applicable to the issue at hand is reckless and I believe, does a disservice to the argument and to those interest groups they are intended to support. I hope that future discussion of this issue is focused on policy and not pseudo-science.

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