Atlantic white cedar once fueled NJ economy, now it stands in ‘ghost forests’

NJ Audubon gets $95,000 in federal funds to help recovery of formerly abundant tree species
Credit: Jon Hurdle
Sept. 13, 2020: Kristen Meistrell, Stewardship Project Director for South Jersey for NJ Audubon, announces the start of a program to save the Atlantic white cedar on the shore of a cedar swamp at Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Burlington County.

In the early days of European settlement in New Jersey, abundant timber from the Atlantic white cedar was used for siding, shingles, fencing, furniture and a host of other items that played an important role in the state’s early economy.

With the evergreen tree’s durability, straight grain and resistance to rot, demand for it quickly outstripped supply, putting early pressure on a species that now has lost about two-thirds of its acreage since the state began to be settled.

More recently, damage has come from sea-level rise which has covered some of the tree’s salt-intolerant roots, creating increasingly familiar “ghost forests” — stands of dead white cedars in coastal areas. Away from the Shore, the tree’s ability to survive and regrow has also been hurt by increased flooding resulting from climate change and by an overabundant population of white-tailed deer which eat the cedar seedlings.

The result is that New Jersey has only about 40,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar habitat left — mostly in six South Jersey counties — or about a third of what was available to European settlers. Naturalists fear a further decline and eventual disappearance from the Garden State unless there is human intervention.

So the conservation nonprofit New Jersey Audubon announced that it is working with two private landowners to clear competing species, build fences to keep browsing deer away from the cedars, and plant seedlings where a stand of the trees needs a helping hand. The program will cover about 100 acres of private land in the Rancocas Creek and Maurice River watersheds.

Officials from the group said on Sept. 13 that their work will be enabled by almost $95,000 in the latest round of federal funding that’s flowing to local conservation groups as a result of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act of 2016. The grant will be matched by about another $95,000 in private funds, totaling some $190,000 for the project.

The federal funding was welcomed by the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, whose director, Sandra Meola, said the grant is part of $8.1 million for 37 projects in the latest round of funding.

“Our advocacy for the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program continues to translate to on-the-ground dollars for restoration and conservation throughout the basin,” Meola said, at a news conference on the edge of a cedar swamp in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, Burlington County.

Working ‘to reverse that trend’

The program is believed to be the first in New Jersey to work with private landowners to save the tree, Audubon officials said, although the Department of Environmental Protection has its own program on public lands adjacent to the private parcels where the new program will be conducted.

“We’re really looking to reverse that trend by working with those private landowners who are critically important to getting this work done,” said Kristen Meistrell, stewardship project director for NJ Audubon in South Jersey. “We can provide financial and technical assistance to private landowners looking to implement habitat restoration on their property.”

Without the management or restoration of existing and potential Atlantic white cedar wetlands, the tree will continue to decline and eventually disappear, she said.

At a time of growing concern about drinking water quality and increasingly destructive floods, rebuilding New Jersey’s population of the trees will filter out pollutants, stabilize stream banks and reduce stormwater runoff, the advocates said. Since the trees typically grow in wet — though not flooded — areas, their stands can also create natural firebreaks, which could reduce the vulnerability of the New Jersey Pinelands to damaging wildfires as summers get hotter.

With its diminished range in New Jersey, the tree — which can grow to 90 feet high — is typically found in the Pinelands but there are isolated pockets in High Point State Park and Wawayanda State Park, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Plant communities dominated by the tree are globally rare, and harbor endangered or threatened species of wildlife including the Hessel’s hairstreak, a rare butterfly; and the black-throated green warbler, a bird species of concern.

“This rare and valuable forest habitat provides many ecological and economic benefits, so proper management and restoration efforts are crucial,” the USDA said.

Even though the tree’s benefits are known, it won’t be clear for some time whether the new program is working, said Danielle Bara, a stewardship technician with NJ Audubon, at the event.

“It will take a few years to really see if we’re making a difference,” she said. “When we see them making seed on their own and regenerating, that would be a success.”