Meet the Sourlands—Yes, New Jersey has forests
The Garden State’s best-kept secret
My home sits deep in the heart of New Jersey among towering trees, chittering critters and serpentine streams. Yes, even New Jersey—renowned for its highway exits (turnpike vs. freeway) and factory fume-filled air—offers immersive natural landscapes. In fact, 40% of the state is covered by forests according to the New Jersey Forest Service. In honor of the recent International Day of Forests, I’m recognizing the worth and beauty of the Jersey forest in which I grew up.
The backyard of my childhood home is a sea of trees. Their branches rustle in the wind as summer storms hydrate our rocky, yet rich, mountain soil. It’s in that very soil that our garden grows—plentiful and colorful. Sweet peas, bell peppers, basil, rosemary, beets, onions, carrots, eggplant … an oasis of life between the tightly woven trees of Central New Jersey.
I live just outside of the Sourland Mountain Preserve—what some call the “best-kept secret in New Jersey.” In the most densely populated state in the nation, the Sourland Mountain region offers a natural haven for those seeking refuge from the constant hustle and bustle of East Coast life. Wander down one of the area’s many trails and find yourself amid profound silence, broken only by birdsongs, scurrying wildlife and the occasional whoosh of a passing airplane heading to or from one of several New York area airports high above.
Photo: Gary Dinmore
This is my New Jersey. Winter turns to spring, and snow-dusted tree branches yield to budding flowers and lush green. On summer nights, fireflies stage a mesmerizing light show, hovering over the ground as Orion’s belt sparkles above—all amid a symphony of singing frogs, who-ing owls and howling coyotes. When autumn strikes, the forest explodes in color: burning orange, crimson red and glowing yellow paint the Sourland’s rolling hills.
This is more than my New Jersey. Thanks to existing protections, 40% of the region’s acreage includes tree stands that are more than 100 years old. These older trees create conditions that nurture abundant plant and animal life. The area encompasses a complex mosaic of ecosystems—forest, wetlands and grasslands—allowing for incredible biodiversity. Much of the life inhabiting this land is rare or endangered, including the barred owl, bobcat, Cooper’s hawk, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, upland sandpiper and wood turtle.
Many birds rely on the forest’s canopy as a critical stopover point during their migrations along the Atlantic flyway and as a breeding area—particularly for migratory songbirds who nest in large wooded spaces. The forests of the Sourland Mountain Region breathe life into Eastern U.S. skies.
Photo: Bob Devlin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Below the Sourland’s canopy trickles our planet’s most valuable resource: water. Streams form headwaters that feed rivers, which supply millions with drinking water. Many New Jerseyans and Pennsylvanians rely on water that began its journey at the top of one of the Sourland’s humble mountains.
The forest is full of winding streams, but one, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. Just a five-minute walk from my doorstep, “Stony Brook” is aptly named for its clear babbling waters that rush over countless stones—smoothed from years of exposure to the elements. When I’m feeling out of sorts or simply need a healthy dose of nature, I head to Stony Brook. Being there evokes memories of raspberry picking with my father and brother or of navigating across the rippling waters with careful steps on algae-covered rocks. I fell in once, underestimating how slippery the rocks could be, and my father reached in to pluck me out. I biked home dripping wet, letting toasty sunlight and a warm breeze dry me on the journey back.
Photo: Vilseskogen via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Sourland Mountain Region introduced me to the wonders of nature. It’s a magnificent treasure, home to wildlife and vital resources, tucked away in the highway-ridden Garden State. International Day of Forests is about recognizing all that our forests do for us: providing water, sustenance, ingredients for life-saving medicines, restorative recreation, peaceful retreats and so much more. These places are truly too precious to lose.
The Sourland’s forests may be one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets, but it shouldn’t be. It’s time this place be appreciated for its value to our people and our planet.