The Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens cover the coastal plain of New Jersey, much of the southern half of Long Island, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an areal extent of nearly 9,000 square kilometers (km2). The largest block of this disjunct ecoregion occurs in the coastal plain of New Jersey. A smaller, inland example of a Pine Barrens ecosystem can be found near Albany, New York. The Pine Barrens are underlain by sandy, nutrient-poor soils that typically support a stunted forest of pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) maintained by frequent fires. Hydrology, soils, disturbance regimes, and vegetation combine to separate this ecoregion from surrounding units. In particular, fire regimes and sandy, droughty soils distinguish this unit from surrounding ecoregions.
Three major types of pine-dominated habitats are widely recognized, each distinguished by canopy height and composition. Pine-oak forest is the tallest type, with a well-developed tree layer composed of post oak (Quercus stellata) and blackjack oak. The Dwarf pine plains represents the other extreme, dominated by a scrub version of pitch pine and blackjack oak that often is less than 3 meters (m) tall. Shrubby oaks are also common such as Q. ilicifolia. The pine-shrub oak forest grades between the two other types with pitch pines commonly reaching a height of more than 10 m. Given the dry, sandy soils of the ecoregion, Pine Barrens do not support particularly rich floras, About 800 species and varieties of plants have been recorded for the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Fire history is the major disturbance factor that influences stand height and composition. Evidence suggests that severe, frequent fires have selected for a distinct genotype of pitch pine, with reduced apical dominance of trees and highly serotinous cones. The herb layer of the Pine Barrens includes 40-50 species found among the three habitat types.
A number of rare endemic plants are common in parts of the New Jersey Pine Barrens which is also home to the endemic Pine Barrens frog. Perhaps most outstanding are the number of relatively rare community types contained within such a small ecoregion. They include: 1) the pitch pine/scrub oak barrens; 2) the coastal plain ponds, an important habitat for the American burying beetle; and 3) maritime grasslands native to Martha's Vineyard and the eastern tip of Long Island, the only sites in the eastern U.S. with these type of grasslands. The beaches adjacent to this ecoregion are critical breeding habitat for piping plover (Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Long Island) and for roseate terns (approximately one-third of the U.S. population breeds on Bird Island).
Habitat Loss and Degradation
Intact habitat is limited to about 10 percent of the original areal extent of the Pine Barrens. Habitat loss in the three disjunct units is a result of urbanization (New Jersey), and suburban sprawl. The rapid expansion of housing developments, retirement communities, and vacation homes has affected all three units. Extensive development in some areas has led to longer intervals for habitats to return from fire episodes, tilting succession to greater dominance of oaks and reduction of dwarf pine areas.
Remaining Blocks of Habitat
Intact habitat is distributed among the following blocks (presented in decreasing order of size):
- New Jersey Pine Barrens - New Jersey
- Long Island Pine Barrens (only a small part remains) - New York
- Miles Standish State Park - Massachusetts
- Cape Cod National Seashore - Massachusetts
- State Forest, Martha's Vineyard - Massachusetts
Degree of Fragmentation
Pine Barrens are naturally fragmented and historically dependent on the substrate. However, road networks have fragmented parts of the Pine Barrens and cause mortality among vertebrates.
Degree of Protection
For its size, this ecoregion represents one of the best conserved habitats in the eastern United States, largely because its poor soils have precluded intensive agriculture. Far-sighted planning, leading to the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore, has preserved an important stretch of this habitat in Massachusetts.
The five remaining blocks of habitat listed above also constitute the most important protected areas in this ecoregion.
Types and Severity of Threats
The major conversion and degradation threats are development and fire suppression. These are considered to be moderate over the next decade. Exploitation of wildlife is not viewed as a major threat to biodiversity conservation, unlike in other ecoregions in the eastern United States.
Suite of Priority Activities to Enhance Biodiversity Conservation
None of the sites listed above are completely protected in terms of land area or management for biodiversity conservation. Increased conservation effort is needed in:
- Peconic Area on Long Island
- Cape Cod National Seashore (largely management issues)
- most of Nantucket
- southern edge of Martha's Vineyard
Several conservation plans for the New Jersey Pine Barrens are reviewed by Berger and Stinton.
Like many ecoregions within the Temperate Coniferous Forest MHT, the Pine Barrens are seriously threatened by fire suppression. Improved zoning and planning must be implemented to reduce development in order to allow areas to burn in controlled fashion.
- Environmental Defense Fund (Long Island)
- Long Island Chapter
- Massachusetts Audubon Society
- National Park Service
- The Nature Conservancy
- The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey
- New Jersey Pinelands Commission
- Sierra Club, Atlantic Chapter
- Sierra Club, New Jersey Chapter Office
- The Trustees of Reservation
Relationship to Other Classification Schemes
Boundaries for the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens are taken from Küchler (unit no. 100). This ecoregion is subsumed under the Upper Atlantic and Lower New England Coastal Plain (sections 221C and 221A, respectively) in Bailey and the Middle Atlantic Coastal Plain and Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain (ecoregions 63 and 59) in Omernik.
Additional Information on this Ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion.
- To see the species that live in this ecoregion, including images and threat levels, see the WWF Wildfinder description of this ecoregion.
- World Wildlife Fund Homepage
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