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A Dialogue on the Pine Barrens

Aug 17, 2021 | Art

A Dialogue on the Pine Barrens

Bob Williams Forest (1)
20200923 161301
20210803 112429 (1)
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Tom Reidy, the Conservancy’s Deputy Director of Finance and Special Projects, had the unique opportunity to speak with both Forester Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry who helped the Conservancy identify and source the Atlantic white cedar trees in Maya Lin’s “Ghost Forest” and with Steph Lucas, the Conservancy’s Deputy Director of Horticulture and Operations who curated the”Plants of the Pine Barrens” exhibition, a display of native plants located in ornamental beds around the Fountain and Reflecting Pool in Madison Square Park.

Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, on view in Madison Square Park through November 14, features 49 dead Atlantic white cedar trees harvested from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We sat down with Bob Williams and Steph Lucus to discuss the threats of climate change to forests and urban parks as well as the symbiotic relationship between trees and plants in helping sustain healthy green spaces. 

What are you hoping visitors learn about when viewing Ghost Forest in the park and to Atlantic white cedars in general from the Pine Barrens?

Bob Williams: I would hope visitors would begin to ask questions as to what is happening to our forests and why. But just as important is I would hope they would begin to ask and speak about solutionsthe solutions that would heal our forests and help offset the loss of forests! Our Atlantic white cedar forests have suffered many centuries of exploitation and abuse, it is now our obligation to use the known forest science to begin the restoration of these and other forests across this nation. I would hope visitors would get curious and begin to understand the true meaning of conservation.

What are you hoping that visitors learn about the native flora from the Pine Barrens? 

Steph Lucas: Many plants of the Pine Barrens were also once native to Madison Square Park but have been absent for many years—they were replaced by exotic plants that are marketed to be more ornamental. The garden trade in the United States has marketed exotic plants for so long that many people are unaware of the natural beauty of local plants. Native plants provide essential food and habitat for wildlife at all levels of the food chain. As we continue to fill our gardens with exotic plants, we are creating gardens that only support invasive species. I hope that visitors will be inspired to plant natives in their own gardens after viewing this exhibition. There are so many beautiful native azaleas, blueberries, dogwoods, and other plants that consumers should use their purchasing power to encourage retailers to include wildlife-supporting plants in the trade.

Tell us a bit about how the native flora of the Pine Barrens helps fortify a healthy cedar forest. 

BW: A healthy cedar forest is more than just a stand of cedar trees. There are a variety of vegetative associations within cedar forests. They typically are dominated by the closed canopy cedar but grow in association with red maple, black gum, and pitch pine. The understory can have a wide variety of shrubs such as highbush blueberry, sweet pepper bush, and laurel! The ground cover is typically covered with a variety of sphagnum mosses. The soils are typically wet muck soils with some peat at times. This is a unique forest type that provides thermal cover in the winter and cooling cover in the hot summer months for a wide range of bird and animal species.

Within the context of climate change, how do native plantings help sustain urban parks such as Madison Square Park?

SL: Issues of coastal flooding, fires, and increased severe weather combined with pest introductions from global shipping and the pressures of urbanization are already making survival difficult for our native wildlife. Native plantings can be ornamental and require less maintenance than exotic plants. These plants are a natural fit for urban parks that often have limited resources and do not apply pesticides and other chemicals that damage pollinators and other microorganisms. Urban parks are perfect places to build wildlife corridors and expose new generations who will be the future environmental stewards.

Beyond salinization, what other climate change threats are you seeing in the cedar forests of the Pine Barrens? 

BW: Beyond the issues with salinization, many other issues are confronting the existence of this forest ecosystem! Severe wind events, ice storms, and early spring wet snow events are impacting cedar forests, causing damage that now allows the competitor species of hardwood and pine to capture these disturbed cedar sites. Wildfire is an increasing threat due to hotter and drier conditions that may allow wildfires to burn out the peat and organic soil thus preventing the regeneration of disturbed cedar stands. However, existing science could allow us to manage these forests and build resiliency into forest ecosystems, therefore allowing cedar not only to sustain itself over time but also begin to allow cedar to recapture areas that it historically occupied.

I encourage everyone to visit the park to view both Ghost Forest and Plants of the Pine Barrens exhibition. They are not only beautiful physical manifestations but also powerful reminders of our collective need to fight climate change now. 

To hear more from Bob Williams on Ghost Forest, click here to view the “State of the Arts” interview on PBS. To learn more about the Plants of the Pine Barrens, click here.

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