The Pine Barrens – Long Island's Nature Sanctuary

Sep 10, 2019

Long Island’s Pine Barrens Preserve is crucial for water quality, but advocates and experts say its value extends beyond groundwater protection. Rare plant and animal species call this ecosystem home, and humans rely on it for hiking, fishing, and communing with the sights and sounds of seemingly endless trees. 

Long Island’s protected pine forests cover over 100,000 acres in Suffolk County, stretching into the towns of Southampton, Brookhaven and Riverhead. The sandy, acidic soil is inhospitable to many plants, but perfect for oak and pitch pine trees, which rely on fires to reproduce and stay healthy. For millennia, that combination – poor soil quality and frequent fires – discouraged human habitation. The forests are now left largely intact for today’s nature lovers because of a 1993 law that protects them from overdevelopment.  

They’re home to an array of endangered plants and animals, from birds and bugs, to flowers and ferns. Rare tiger salamanders and mud turtles populate the forests’ wetlands. Another distinctive plant is the state-protected pink lady’s slipper orchid, a pink ovular flower that resembles its namesake. The forest encompasses part of the Carmans and Peconic Rivers, and helps keep their water pure.

An eastern tiger salamander lies on the forest floor of the Pine Barrens. In New York, these salamanders are found exclusively in eastern Long Island, and are under threat from continued development.
Credit Long Island Pine Barrens Society

Tom Casey is on the board for both the Pine Barrens Society, an environmental advocacy group, and Quogue Wildlife Refuge, in southeast Suffolk County. He’s been hiking in the Pine Barrens for more than 40 years. On a walk through the refuge, he whistles to an eastern towhee, one of the local bird species.

“It has a call that ornithologists say sounds like ‘drink your tea,’” Casey explains. “It looks sort of like a robin but with more intense colors. And it nests on the ground. They’re very shy birds, and a little tough to spot. But that's a classic Pine Barrens bird.”

John Turner, a cofounder of the Pine Barrens Society, was critical in passing the historic 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act, which created the Pine Barrens Commission, the governing body that oversees land use in the forests. 

One of Turner’s favorite animals here is the coastal barrens buckmoth. “That species is really iconic to the Pine Barrens,” he says. “These moths are black, orange and white. They're gorgeous little insects.” 

A group of coastal barrens buckmoth caterpillars, native to the Pine Barrens, explore a leaf in the Dwarf Pine Plains near Westhampton Beach.
Credit Joshua Joseph

The Dwarf Pine Plains by Westhampton Beach are an even rarer ecosystem within the Pine Barrens. This almost 800-acre forest is one of only three in the world. It’s full of pitch pines that are shorter than most people, growing to about five feet high. Scientists disagree on why they’re so short. Some think the reason has to do with the sandy, nutrient-poor soil. 

As the science and stewardship manager for the Pine Barrens Commission, Polly Weigand helps maintain the health of the forest. She maps endangered species, writes grants and coordinates research. On a trail in the Dwarf Pine Plains, she says that all plants and animals found in the forest rely on each other to survive. 

“We get so caught up in what’s important to humans that we forget that all these species, whether we can see them with the naked eye or not, are all intrinsically important in and of themselves,” Weigand says. 

It’s that sentiment that inspired the cofounders of the Pine Barrens Society in the 1970s, including Bob McGrath, now its vice president.

“Back then we were big on what we call ‘biological rights’ – that all plants and animals have a purpose in this world and they have a right to exist,” McGrath says. 

Along with McGrath, Turner hoped residents would grow to love and appreciate the forest, and would want to protect it.  

For John Turner, the Pine Barrens offer more than buck moths and towhees. 

“Everybody strives to live in a place that they find appealing and they find attractive and feel a connection to,” Turner says. “I would argue that one of the most important components is having open space – places where people can go and decompress from the pressures of everyday life, and hike, and walk, and experience the natural world that is filled with magic all around them.”

But while the Pine Barrens Society wanted to protect native and endangered species, they knew that to capture the attention of the public and elected officials, they needed something more compelling.

“Ultimately, the Pine Barrens was not saved because of the rare and endangered species,” McGrath says. “When people shelled out the money and the politicians voted to preserve the Pine Barrens, it was because of the water resources that are found beneath. There's no question about that.” 

But they accomplished more than preserving the Pine Barrens, a place where rainwater can filter into the groundwater supply relatively uncontaminated. They preserved an environment where Long Islanders can find peace, and a connection to nature. 

“It is Long Island’s Central Park,” Turner says of the Pine Barrens. “I think as time goes on, as people realize the importance of the Pine Barrens as a groundwater watershed providing pure, fresh water to Long Islanders, and providing an area to go hike and camp and canoe and kayak and birdwatch and picnic, it will really enhance the quality of life of Long Islanders.” 

This report is part of a series on the Pine Barrens that is a collaboration between WSHU and the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. The reporting team consisted of Margaret Osborne, Desiree D'Iorio, Taylor Beglane, Kiki Sideris, Joshua Joseph, and Kiara Thomas.