Barrens of the Northeast

Dave Peters

When I was conducting research for “Sand and Fire,” a history of the Namekagon Barrens in northwestern Wisconsin, I came upon frequent references to other pine barrens in the northeastern United States. Barrens exist in New York, New Hampshire, Maine and elsewhere that are similar to the Namekagon Barrens but nonetheless have significant differences. But I had a hard time finding people either in Wisconsin or in the Northeast who were very familiar with both regions.

So this fall my wife, Lisa, and I set out for New England to spend a few days looking at some barrens of the Northeast. It was hardly an exhaustive tour but we found ourselves in three places that, like the Namekagon Barrens, are being protected and managed to preserve a rare habitat under pressure from industry, development or timber harvest.

They were the Albany Pine Bush Preserve in New York; the Ossipee Pine Barrens in New Hampshire; and the Waterboro Barrens Preserve in Maine.

First, I was gratified to learn that all of them involve lots of glacial outwash sand and are managed through the use of controlled fire. The title of my book stands confirmed. And second, we saw lots of familiar plants – pine trees, scrub oaks, blueberry bushes, sweet fern, sedges. Walking through the brush in these places reinforced my sense that there is something oddly special about barrens terrain. The oaks and blueberry bushes were burnished in red and orange fall colors; bases of the pines were blackened by fire; sweet ferns released their pungent aroma.

But there were plenty of differences. First, the pine trees. The eastern barrens are dominated by pitch pines, not jack pines. Pitch pines are taller and grow more densely than do the jack pines of the Namekagon Barrens. Their bark is dark, gray to red and deeply furrowed, and they are epicormic, that is, they grow bunches of needles straight out of the thick bark on the trunk, a fire-adaptive characteristic. Like jack pines, their cones are serotinous and drop their seeds when subjected to fire. Their pitch has been used in shipbuilding and to make turpentine and tar. They grow in New England and Appalachia but not farther west, thus not overlapping much with jack pines. Because of the size and density of the pitch pines, you have more of a feeling of being in the woods than you do in the barrens of Wisconsin. When I showed a photo of the Namekagon Barrens to a staff person in Albany, she was shocked at the openness. 

The southern pine beetle is a threat to pitch pines in the Northeast, especially because of the warming climate. The beetle has been seen at both Ossipee and Waterboro. So far, it has done more damage elsewhere, on Long Island, for example.

The oak trees, too, are different species than in Wisconsin, even though the phrase “scrub oak” is used in both regions. In the Northeast, if you press land managers, they will say the species is “scrub oak,” or quercus illicifolia. That is also known as bear oak. In addition, there are dwarf chestnut oaks (quercus prinoides). In Wisconsin, people say “scrub oak” and they really mean short versions of Hills oak (northern pin oak, or quercus ellipsoidalis) and bur oak, quercus macrocarpa.

Although whip-poor-wills and common nighthawks are birds of interest in these eastern barrens, there wasn’t the focus on them in the way that preserving the sharp-tailed grouse habitat was a key motivation for conserving the Namekagon Barrens.

Unlike the Namekagon Barrens, none of these three areas seems to have been farmed significantly, if at all. There had been logging in some areas but a main concern of conservationists has been development pressure.

Albany Pine Bush.

The glacial sand at Albany was blown into high dunes so there are a lot of ups and downs in this preserve. It’s a collection of tracts with interstate highway I-90 barreling right through the middle of them. A shopping center, a landfill and housing developments are right on its edge. More than 2,000 acres are managed as barrens and they are under pressure from nearby developments. Silence isn’t what you go the Albany Pine Bush for. But this preserve is overseen by a commission created by the legislature and has more resources than others. Several taxing authorities contribute support for a number of staff people. There are miles of trails, and school kids are frequent visitors. A visitor center has displays and a gift shop. We ran into several people who clearly love to hike the preserve regularly.

The Albany Pine Bush lies on a sand plain that once was beneath Glacial Lake Albany. The sand is very fine, not unlike that of the Namekagon Barrens but without the reddish cast that iron gives it. It once was mined to make glass because of its purity. At the Namekagon Barrens, the sand was delivered by glaciers from the north. But at Albany it tended to wash in from the west in the drainage of what is now the Mohawk River. Seeds came along and, as a result, some of the vegetation has its seed sources hundreds of miles to the west. So the Albany Pine Bush tends to include more grasses and flowers than the New England barrens. We saw goldenrods still blooming in October at Albany, for example. There was New Jersey tea and even some prairie willow.

Land managers at the Albany Pine Bush try to keep it more open than other pine barrens in an effort to encourage karner blue butterflies and other moth species.  

Ossipee Pine Barrens

The Ossipee Pine Barrens are the largest barrens in New Hampshire and have been managed for many years by The Nature Conservancy. As we approached a small parking area serving several miles of trails, we drove through a tract that was blackened from a very recent burn, right along state Route 41, a burn conducted more for public safety to prevent future fires. The sand here was more coarse and pebbly; the oaks were taller, 10 feet or more. 

The brush was less varied here – no New Jersey tea that we saw, or prairie willow. There wasn’t much in the way of hazelnuts. Sweet fern grew in profusion but there were few flowers or grasses that we observed. The tract of barrens was bordered by a small picturesque creek, West Branch. It was flowing quickly and cut through a beech and red-maple forest that would apparently be the culminating forest if the barrens were never burned.

Unlike the Namekagon Barrens, this land wasn’t farmed. Much of it was owned by a large timber company that would send crews into in spring because it dried out faster than other timber land. It was seeking mainly white pine. The Nature Conservancy land manager here later told me a retired logger remembers when efforts were made to log the pitch pine out so that white pine could be grown for commercial purposes.

Much of what had been barrens terrain is now taken up by seasonal homes on the two large lakes near the preserve.

Waterboro Barrens Preserve.

Waterboro Barrens Preserve in Maine, also managed for years by the Nature Conservancy, was special. The pitch pines seemed so evenly spaced and the sand plain was flat as a pancake where we walked. (There is a bog – like the one on the south unit of the Namekagon Barrens – but we didn’t see it.) The scrub oaks at Waterboro were three to five feet high and the brush was 90 percent sweet ferns and blueberries. The terrain was so inviting, very quiet and very walkable; I wished it had been July and I’d had my ice cream bucket for picking. Again, there was no New Jersey tea or prairie willow and virtually no flowers or grass here. The ground was covered with luxuriant sedges.

As it turns out, this appearance at Waterboro was at least partly the result of more “heavy-handed” management aimed at preventing damage from the southern bark beetle, according to The Nature Conservancy. Mowing and burning regularly reduces the pitch pine canopy, which in turn slows the tree-to-tree movement of the beetles. The Waterboro preserve, also more than 2,000 acres, had been farmed in the mid-19th Century and has been managed by the Nature Conservancy since the early 1990s, when it was purchased to prevent a large recreational-residential development.

Next time.

These were just three preserves of barrens in the Northeast. There are a lot more that we didn’t get to. The granddaddy and most well known of barrens in the United States are the New Jersey pine barrens. They were made famous by author John McPhee in a 1978 book that really focused more on the culture of the area than on the natural history.

Less well known are barrens on Long Island and on Martha’s Vineyard and in the Plymouth area of Massachusetts. On New York’s Shawangunk Ridge in the Catskill Mountains, there is a forest of dwarf pitch pine in Minnewaska State Park that apparently looks like a bonzai pine barrens. Sounds like another road trip.

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