By Michele S. Byers
To early European settlers, the native evergreen trees known as Atlantic white cedars must have seemed like a gift.
The towering cedars – some over 1,000 years old – grew in dense swamps up and down the Atlantic Coast, including many spots in New Jersey.
Cedar wood was lightweight, straight-grained and rot-resistant – ideal for shipbuilding, shake roofs, clapboards and fence posts. The heartwood was so durable that even logs submerged in swamps for decades could still be excellent lumber.
It didn’t take long for colonists to cash in on Atlantic white cedars. They were heavily logged in New Jersey for local construction and export to Europe.
But the supply was not endless. As early as 1749, explorer and botanist Peter Kalm warned that uncontrolled slashing of Atlantic white cedar forests “utterly regardless of posterity” could wipe them out.
Few listened, and cedar swamps continued to decline. Cedar forests did not regenerate easily; instead, hardwood trees took their place. Adding to the decline, some cedar swamps were converted to agriculture and others were diked to support the bog iron industry.
Today, salt water is threatening Atlantic white cedar forests due to sea level rise. Many cedar stands near the coast died after Superstorm Sandy pushed saltwater inland in 2012.
According to State Forester John Sacco, there are now only about 20,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar forest remaining in New Jersey of the original 135-140,000 acres that existed before European settlement.
The good news is that the state has an ambitious plan to restore cedar forests. They aim to restore 10-20,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar forest in the Pine Barrens over the next 10 years. It’s the largest Atlantic white cedar restoration project of its type ever proposed in any state.
Why restore cedar forests?
“Atlantic white cedar forests are like the kidneys of the Pine Barrens,” said Sacco, explaining that the forests have an exceptional ability to filter and absorb pollutants from water. They also hold stormwater and release it slowly, regulating the hydrology of the region.
Pine Barrens plants benefit. Atlantic white cedar swamps are habitat for swamp pink, a federally-threatened and state-endangered flower of the lily family, as well as many other rare and unique Pine Barrens plants.
And cedar swamps are valuable habitat for Pinelands animals. A rare butterfly known as Hessel’s hairstreak is exclusively dependent on Atlantic white cedar swamps. Cedar swamps also provide winter hibernation habitat for the state-endangered timber rattlesnake, and places for many other animals to cool off in the summer and find cover in the winter.
The oldest remaining Atlantic white cedar swamp forests are also nesting areas for the state-threatened barred owl and, on rare occasions, the tiny saw-whet owl.
The cedar restoration project will be funded by a “Natural Resource Damages” pollution settlement resulting from fines for fuel leaks and spills at thousands of gas stations throughout New Jersey.
“Polluters are paying for this project,” said Sacco. “Since the settlement involved pollution of groundwater statewide, what better way of compensating for the damages?”
The project is expected to begin in the next two years. Atlantic white cedar restoration sites will be located near headwaters streams, in places resistant to saltwater intrusion. If all goes according to plans, at least 1,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar forest will be added each year. “It’s exciting and it’s really great to tie in these two programs – Natural Resource Damages and forest restoration,” said Sacco. “It’s just an incredible thing to do.”
Kudos to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for taking action to restore Atlantic white cedar forests, 400 years after the first European settlers began cutting them down. Public drinking water supplies and Pine Barrens wildlife will both reap the benefits.
For more information about Atlantic white cedars, go to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forests website at www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/forest/njfs_awc_initiative.html.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.