By Michele S. Byers
For folks living in most of New Jersey, the idea of mountains in the low-lying Pine Barrens might seem farfetched.
Many have never heard of the Forked River Mountains of Ocean County, located due west of Barnegat Bay and the Garden State Parkway.
Although they’re called mountains, the Forked River Mountains are actually large sand and gravel hills. They were created 10-15 million years ago when the ocean that once covered New Jersey’s coastal plain retreated, forming rivers that moved gravel into large deposits.
At 184 and 176 feet above sea level, the two highest ridges in the Forked River Mountains aren’t exactly alpine peaks. But they have sweeping views of New Jersey’s coastal plain, including the “Old Barney” lighthouse at the Barnegat Inlet and historic airfield hangars at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
But height isn’t everything. What makes the Forked River Mountains truly special is their ecology, beauty, history and folklore.
The Forked River Mountains are at the heart of a 20,000-acre Pine Barrens wilderness that has remained relatively unchanged, thanks to decades of preservation efforts.
Last month, the Ocean County Freeholders preserved nearly 8,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands in the Forked River Mountains. It was the largest open space purchase in the county’s history.
“This environmental gem will now be preserved in its natural state forever,” said Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines, who serves as liaison to the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund.
The newly-preserved property straddles Lacey and Ocean townships and is surrounded by thousands of acres of state, county and nonprofit preserved lands, including the Candace McKee Ashmun Preserve.
In the 1960s, the Forked River Mountains region was eyed by developers as the site for a sprawling new metropolis, including a “supersonic jetport” covering 50 square miles and a city with a potential population of 250,000. This was overwhelming, considering that the entire population of Ocean County at the time was about 108,000.
“When publicized in 1964, this project proposal united conservationists, blueberry and cranberry farmers, hunters and others who, realizing the threat to the Pinelands, began to work together on preservation efforts,” wrote author Robert J. Mason in his book, “Contested Lands: Conflict and Compromise in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.” “Those preservation efforts finally came to fruition in the late 1970s” with the establishment of the federal Pinelands National Reserve and the passage of the state Pinelands Protection Act.
Why is it so important to preserve the Forked River Mountains?
Barnegat Bay – The mountain area contains numerous freshwater streams, including the Oyster Creek and three branches of the Forked River, which flow into the bay. The bay is a beloved Jersey Shore destination, but it’s plagued by pollution and needs all the clean water it can get!
Plants and Wildlife – The Forked River Mountains are covered with globally-rare pitch pine/scrub oak barrens, as well as Atlantic white cedar, black gum and maple swamps. The area provides vital habitat for many rare plants and animals, including Pine Barrens gentians, curly grass ferns, Kniesekern’s beaked rushes, bog asphodels, swamp pinks, northern pine snakes, timber rattlesnakes and Pine Barrens tree frogs. Beaver, otter, mink, and gray foxes can also be found throughout the area.
Threats – Even though preserved, the Forked River Mountains area still faces threats from illegal off-road vehicles, which tear up streams and destroy vegetation and wildlife habitat. Continuous efforts are needed to block ORV access and keep environmentally sensitive lands safe. Illegal dumping is another issue, which the nonprofit Forked River Coalition combats with its annual spring cleanup.
Congratulations to the Ocean County Freeholders for their fantastic purchase. These 8,000 acres are a huge step toward protecting the entire Forked River Mountains region and their wildlife, plants and water resources.
If you have not visited the Forked River Mountains, now’s the time! A great place to start is Wells Mills County Park in Waretown, with miles of trails through pine and oak forests. For more information and a trail map, go to the Ocean County Parks website at www.oceancountyparks.org/frmFindPark.
To learn more about the Forked River Mountains, go to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org/blog/tag/pine-barrens/ and the Forked River Mountain Coalition website at www.frmc.org/.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.