The Disappearing Mountain
By Jason Howell
There are a number of large hills in the Pine Barrens that some of us locals love to call mountains. Their names vary, from Jemima Mount, to Apple Pie Hill, Devious Mount, the Forked River Mountain, and Mt. Tabour. The chance to step out above the treeline and peer over the vast forests of the Pinelands National Reserve is an experience not to be forgotten. The peaks of these “mountains” were caused not by tectonic activity, but by the deposition of river gravel, laid down during the middle and late Miocene (between 15-million and 10-million years ago) by rivers that formed as sea levels declined and re-exposed much of what is South Jersey. (1) These rivers brought gravel and deposited those soils along much of the central and northern Pinelands forming what is known as the Beacon Hill Formation.
Although these peaks have survived for millions of years, they are now experiencing anthropogenic impacts that dwarf the natural forces of erosion. Off-road vehicle drivers have begun tearing into the slopes at an increasing rate to challenge their machines against the land. This pernicious activity has cut deep gullies into most of the highest hills of the Pines and denuded large percentages of their slopes of vegetation which exacerbates the natural processes of erosion. These are places that offer an irreplaceable experience for Pinelands residents and visitors and the threat of their disappearance should be taken very seriously.
Unfortunately, this threat has not been broadly addressed by the State with two important exceptions. Rob Auermuller, the superintendent of Wharton State Forest, took action and with the help of volunteers gated and blocked off-road vehicles from entering Jemima Mount last year. Also in Wharton, former Lieutenant Ranger, Greg Langan, made the same effort for Apple Pie Hill in the 1990s to stop destructive ORV use at that iconic location. Their efforts have paid off and both locations have been steadily improving and healing from the damage that was done. Soils have stabilized at Apple Pie Hill and vehicles have ceased all activity at Jemima Mount, leaving a chance for the slopes to naturally stabilize there as well.
We are asking the Director of Parks and Forestry, Mark Texel, to take this threat seriously as well. He should act quickly to implement the recent Pinelands Commission resolution for Wharton State Forest that would protect future areas from this type of degradation. This unanimously approved resolution will address one of the most serious threats to public land in the National Reserve, but it needs to be implemented first. The public’s land should never be left to fend for itself by those who are trusted and paid to protect it.