Did you know that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the Union? Well, we are, with a staggering 1,215 people per square mile. This is one reason, along with the view from the Turnpike and the roads near Newark Airport, why the rest of the country makes fun of our nickname, the Garden State.
“Waddaya grow: oil slicks?” is one crack I’ve heard. A better one would be property taxes, another area where we’re Number One.
The next time some weisenheimer coins a Jersey Joke, tell him or her we also feature one of the largest wilderness areas on the eastern seaboard: fully 1.1 million acres of pristine, ecologically diverse landscape, mostly unchanged since the last Ice Age ended.
Then when they scoff at this, you can really blow their mind by telling them it preserves and refreshes a 17 TRILLION-gallon aquifer, a gargantuan well filled with the purest water in the U.S., if not the planet.
The Pinelands, or just the Pines to many locals, spreads across seven counties in the southern half of the state, bordered on the east by the I-95 corridor, the string of highways that stretch along the entire coastline between Maine and Florida. NJ’s portion is 80 miles long, carrying the bulk of the traffic between New York City and Philadelphia.
That a chunk of unspoiled outdoors filled with rare flora and fauna lies just beyond the speeding traffic, including 18-wheel trucks belching
exhaust into the air is well, a miracle. Not to mention how it’s resisted our state’s insatiable appetite for development.
But it has, and hopefully it will continue to do so, thus preserving the namesake evergreens including the pygmy pine trees, plus old-growth oaks, white cedar, even rare orchids. Add in all the critters like endangered black bears and bobcats, oodles of reptiles and no less than 300 bird species, and you have a specialized Eden teeming with life.
One of the reasons it survived into the 20th century is its floor, which is an acidic soil featuring a base of sand. This proved inhospitable to the original European farmers and their traditional crops, thus keeping the population low.
In 1978, Congress added the Barrens to its roster of national preserves. By the late 80’s, even the United Nations pitched in, designating the Barrens an International Biosphere Reserve. Today, it is administered by a 15-member Commission, appointed jointly by the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, our governor and the seven adjoining counties.
Thus far, this agency of volunteer officials serving three-year terms has done an admirable job of balancing economic and ecological interests.
But this is New Jersey, where our history is often ignored, even paved over, and preservation is usually sacrificed on the altar of Greed.
Thankfully, there are initiatives like the Farmland Preservation Program, which has saved 240,000 acres to date, and local officials are usually receptive to the “tree huggers” amongst us.
But with open space constantly threatened and reduced, nothing can be taken for granted.
Have you noticed how contractors are replacing single-family homes with multiple condominiums? Just one lot can suddenly yield four or more units, and on sites like the former Honeywell headquarters in Morristown, a virtual village of HUNDREDS of condos is being built.
As long as such sprawl is permitted, precious places like the Pine Barrens will always be at risk.