Most people experience the New Jersey Pine Barrens from the window of a car, hurtling south from the sprawl of Philadelphia and Trenton or the Jersey Shore and then through endless acres of pitch pine, scrub oak, and blueberry. One morning in March, Emile Devito, an ecologist with the nonprofit New Jersey Conservation Foundation, navigated off the arterial route and onto a sand road in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest toward one of the state’s most pristine stands of Atlantic white cedar trees. He parked by the headwaters of a creek, then got out and began hopping across the thick hummocks surrounding the cedar trunks to keep his feet dry. The open canopy closed in. Cedar trees grew straight upward like needles from the dark mucky soil. Sunlight leaked down to the understory as if through an attic window high above.
Devito paused beside the creek and gestured at the cedars. “This is what we want,” he said. “We had 100,000 acres of this. And this is a whisper of what we had because the trees were way bigger.”
Atlantic white cedar swamps once wound thick green ribbons through the New Jersey Pine Barrens and south down the coastal plain, providing rich nesting habitat for Barred Owls and Black-throated Green Warblers, and serving as a refuge for rare plants, snakes, and butterflies. They used to dominate some 500,000 acres from Maine to the Gulf Coast. Now the swamps have shrunk to an estimated 100,000 acres, with particularly steep losses in South Carolina. In New Jersey, which retains the largest acreage of Atlantic white cedar in the United States, centuries of development and logging have reduced its domain from some 115,000 acres down to an estimated 25,000. According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), almost all of it in the Pinelands, the 1.1-million-acre national reserve in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The trees’ newest, biggest threat may be rolling in from the sea. Atlantic white cedars tolerate wet soil, but salt kills them. Accelerating sea-level rise and storm surges from ever-stronger hurricanes are pushing salty water upstream into forests, killing trees at their roots and creating vast stands of dead cedar known as “ghost forests”—an eerie symbol of New Jersey’s vulnerability to climate change.
After years of discussion, the NJDEP has a plan to fight back. With $20 million from a 2018 settlement with oil and gas companies over groundwater contamination, officials aim to restore some 10,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar trees in the Pinelands. Officials say they’ll prioritize the headwaters of Pine Barrens streams, which would benefit water quality for the state’s largest groundwater aquifer. If it’s successful, the project will also expand a unique and threatened haven for biodiversity in the most densely populated state in the nation. And by targeting inland sites safe from seawater, it will demonstrate how people can help slow-moving species adapt to a fast-changing climate.
A decade-old restoration site at Double Trouble State Park in Ocean County shows what’s possible. In 2012 winds from Superstorm Sandy knocked down dozens of acres of Atlantic white cedars. Since then the New Jersey Forest Service has been working to bring them back. In some areas it planted seedlings. In others it has leaned on natural regeneration: clearing away common tree species, like red maple and black gum, to give cedar seeds residing in the soil a chance to sprout. Today thousands of chest-height cedars grow in the sun; the NJDEP simply monitors the site’s progress.
The agency plans to follow this strategy throughout the Pinelands. It’s an opportunity to reverse at least some of the destruction that has befallen the species over the last few centuries, says Forest Service chief Todd Wyckoff. “If we’re going to do that in a cost-effective and efficient way, we need to act now, while there’s still cedar on the landscape to seed in the new generation.”
Cedar swamps are critical wildlife habitats and carbon sinks. Their dense tree cover makes them cooler in summer and warmer in winter than surrounding pine forests, which makes them hospitable for plants and critters at the northern or southern edges of their range. They pack carbon into trunks and sphagnum mosses carpeting the ground. Barred Owls, threatened in New Jersey though secure nationally, nest in older cedar stands. Black-throated Green Warblers breed in swampy patches outside their main Appalachian corridor. (A subspecies of the Black-throated Green, the Wayne’s Warbler, is closely linked with white cedar swamps in Virginia and North Carolina.) Endangered timber rattlesnakes overwinter in cedar stumps.
The restoration provides other benefits, too. Human intervention on the landscape, including the planned clearing and regeneration of cedar swamps, mimics processes that in the past created a healthy patchwork of habitats. Prior to European settlement, the Pine Barrens ecosystem evolved around regular disturbances, including more frequent and intense wildfires, along with controlled burns managed by Indigenous Lenape. There’s also evidence that hurricane winds toppled mature trees at long but regular intervals. Those disturbances helped create what foresters and ecologists sometimes refer to as a mosaic, a system with habitats in different stages of development and trees of different ages.
Over the last few hundred years, fire suppression, development, agriculture, and logging have interrupted those processes, resulting in a more uniform environment. In the short term, cedar restoration work could create dense sapling habitats attractive to migrating birds and open-canopy areas welcoming to Eastern Whip-poor-wills, says NJDEP assistant commissioner John Cecil. Long-term, it could help sustain a resilient forest mosaic. “Many of the species that rely on the disturbance are now reliant on whatever people are doing in the forest,” he says.
Bob Williams, owner of Pine Creek Forestry, says it’s past time for the state to more actively manage its vast public forests. He has helped manage cedar on private lands in New Jersey for decades. About 15 years ago, as part of a remediation project for a private landowner, he bulldozed 25 acres of Atlantic white cedar in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, reducing it to little more than a dirt patch. Today, the site has grown back so thick with young cedars that it’s difficult to walk through—proof of how the Pinelands ecosystem thrives on disturbance, he says.
Growing recognition of climate change, too, has pushed the NJDEP’s cedar restoration plan forward. Sea levels are rising faster in New Jersey than most of the world. In coastal marshes, naturalists see saltwater grasses replacing freshwater species; soon that seawater could reach coastal forests. Officials in the state plan to take these risks into account, and they’re learning as they go. The Forest Service already had to abandon one site in the Bass River State Forest deemed too close to the coast. “The species doesn’t have a very rosy future there,” supervising forester Bill Zipse says.
Farther inland cedars have a shot—but saving the rare habitat will require ongoing work. Decades of destruction and neglect brought Atlantic white cedars to the brink. In an altered world, it will take a lasting commitment to help them adapt.
This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “How to Move a Forest.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.