The Pinelands National Reserve is one of the most integrated regional planning regimes for conservation in the world. Environmental protection is overlapped by the State Pinelands Area, the Pinelands National Reserve, and the New Jersey Pinelands Biosphere Reserve (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Stockton University, a 4-year state university with an 800-hectare campus operates within this mix of preservation and working landscape. In the Environmental Studies program, faculty engage students in the outdoor classroom to study the complexities of balancing development and conservation. This case highlights the creation of the first National Reserve and a University within the protected area and focuses on students analyzing species and habitat to encourage native cavity nesting animals to return and breed in the Pinelands. Readers will be able to navigate the complexities and opportunities of working in a protected area and apply these lessons in the classroom. With this case study, instructors, researchers, and students will be able to apply the symbiotic relationship between protected region and university to other areas of the world.
Stockton University is located within the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a place faced with a unique regional planning scheme that integrates local, state, and federal jurisdictions. There are multiple levels of protection here: The State Pinelands Protection Area, the Pinelands National Reserve, and the NJ Pinelands Biosphere United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Reserve. This article discusses the impetus and history for the creation of the Pinelands National Reserve. Next, we introduce Stockton University and its place as a state university located within this protected area. This article identifies the complexities, responsibilities, and opportunities that a college or university would have for regional conservation and environmental restoration. The case then specifically discusses the efforts of one Environmental Science/Studies course. Here engaging students in active learning, within a localized field-based context, fulfills the conservation mandate . In this example, faculty use active learning techniques to teach students about cavity nesting species and restore habitat in the most urbanized US state and in the globally recognized Pine Barrens. The interdependence between regional regulation, university commitment, and faculty pedagogy can prepare other universities to enhance their local conservation partnerships and prepare students as future leaders in regional planning and land management.
Pinelands National Reserve Is Born
During the 1960s, escalating tensions between extractionists and preservationists led to a battle of policy and activism in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The idea of exploiting the Pinelands and other parts of the United States was not new . In 1876, Joseph Wharton bought large tracts of land with the goal of using the pure waters of the Kirkwood and Cohansey aquifers to supply Philadelphia. That unsuccessful project highlighted the clean water reserves located beneath the Pinelands sands . Almost 100 years later, in 1967, developers revealed a plan to expand the development of Northern New Jersey and develop a bustling city and supersonic regional jetport in Southern New Jersey. This plan would likely marginalize working-class locals, farmers, and “The Pineys” (originally a derogatory term for the rural residents but now associated with local pride) . New Jersey already had the highest population density of any state . What risk did further development pose to the 17 trillion gallons of pure water beneath the forest and wetlands?
The jetport plan met with backlash from various factions concerned with the environmental welfare of the Pinelands. A Pinelands Regional Planning Board had existed since 1964, but rumors of development sparked a torrent of local and federal interest in the future of the region . Environmental and public interest groups formed, the Department of the Interior commissioned ecological inventories, and various land use planning boards were convened in response to the Pine Barrens conflict . The jetport controversy garnered national attention, concurrent to the publication of John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens, a paean to the Pinelands that ended on a mournful note of anticipated loss of these landscapes and lifeways, to development and industry . John McPhee’s friend, Brendan Thomas Byrne, would serve as NJ Governor from 1974–1982 and leave an environmental legacy for New Jersey .
Conflicts continued through the 1970s and culminated in 1978 with a new land use conservation model. The Pinelands National Reserve, the nation’s first National Reserve (and today only one of three), included a 445,000 hectare area protected from unchecked development and corporate industrial interests in perpetuity . The National Reserve was modeled after national parks in the UK, which incorporated mixed uses within the boundaries of regionally protected natural areas . This new National Reserve, designated as part of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 , was unique because two pieces of legislation were combined. One favored local interests and municipal cooperation, the other gave precedence to regional oversight. Neither sought to purchase land by invoking eminent domain, as would happen with a National Park, National Forest, or other federal designation. Instead, the Pinelands National Reserve required federal, state, and local cooperation with the state taking the lead to develop a regional plan while the federal government helped with funding.
In hopes of maintaining positive relations, effective communication, and sound decision-making between the state and local authorities, a new 15-member Pinelands Commission was designated both by federal and state law. The planning group would have seven members appointed by the governor, another individual from each of the seven counties in the Pinelands, and a designee of the Federal government assigned by the US Secretary of the Interior. Using a comprehensive management plan and map, the Commission would regionally plan and locally approve land use and development projects [11, 12].
An Environmental University
Stockton University was established in 1969, when a state sanctioned committee selected a 650-hectare tract in Galloway, New Jersey, for a new 4-year college to serve the population of southern New Jersey . Here, in a forest setting, one could study New Jersey’s many urban and rural issues . The campus was an ideal location for ecological study and conservation . Early consultants recommended zoning the campus to preserve sanctuaries and create outdoor classrooms for in situ scientific studies. Separation of uses was the first step in planning for development and conservation .
At that time, the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey was beginning to gain recognition for its special ecological qualities: stands of Atlantic white-cedar, plains of pygmy pines, carnivorous plants, rare birds and amphibians, and more. Stockton’s founders intended to leave most of the campus site undeveloped to “support the programmatic needs of the faculty, especially in Environmental Studies” . Stockton’s campus was unique in that it was a large contiguous parcel with various habitats of high ecological value and had good accessibility to living/working areas. The campus planning committee designated portions of the campus as ecological study areas, hoping to achieve a balance of education and aesthetics . All developments, and the environmental impacts, were carefully considered with siting and location of buildings, roads, parking lots, and other infrastructure . Original plans even recommended prescribed burning for forest health and wildlife management . This type of balance between development and conservation was a precursor to the regional planning scheme (The Pinelands National Reserve) that would make international news.
Just as Stockton was starting to expand the campus, the Pinelands National Reserve created a new opportunity for participation. Professors from Stockton, Rutgers, and the University of Pennsylvania were at the original planning meetings of the National Park Service to establish a federal boundary and were also part of a consulting team to the Pinelands Commission when state legislation was drafted. Faculty and students became involved in this research. Many of these students have gone on to occupy positions in state and local government or firms that today make decisions on Pinelands development .
Yet, there was also some tension. Stockton had been operating for ~7 years when the Pinelands Commission and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan were formally implemented in 1979. The school would now need to adhere to new land use zoning, ordinances, and development laws. With the creation of a new environmental club (Stockton Action Volunteer for the Environment) , and pressure from students protesting intrusive development without regard for ecology , Stockton immediately sought to reconcile their development plans and assert itself as a leader in Pinelands conservation. In their appeal to the newly formed Pinelands Commission to complete dormitory construction, the Board of Trustees asserted, “Protection, preservation, and, if possible, enhancement of the college’s Pine Barrens ecology was, thus, a fundamental criteria for planning…. Failure to meet the full measure of this criteria would be, in the view of the college, intolerable and unacceptable” . Stockton’s strengths included early involvement in the planning process, a willingness to encourage strong interagency cooperation, and the ability of faculty/students to develop baseline data for monitoring.
Today, there are multiple levels of protection for the Pinelands (Figure 1). Stockton is concerned with their ~800-hectare campus (it has grown since the original purchase) . The State-designated Pinelands Area (created by the New Jersey Pinelands Protection Act of 1979) encompasses 380,000 ha. The Pinelands National Reserve includes more than 445,000 ha. In 1988, the UNESCO designed 438,000 ha as the New Jersey Pinelands Biosphere Reserve, under its Man and Biosphere Programme [23, 24].1 As of June 2018, half of the State Pinelands Area (almost 189,000 ha) has been permanently protected, the majority of this from federal, state, and local preservation initiatives and ~3% by non-profit organizations . This includes more than 22,000 ha protected through a unique Transfer of Development Rights system adopted in 1981 . This system preserves land with high ecological and agricultural value (sending areas) and allows for more development in Regional Growth Areas (receiving areas) .
This state-owned land within a state and national preservation jurisdiction makes for a unique case study. Only a few other comparable examples exist worldwide (e.g., Eastern Washington University in Turnbull NWR and Niger Delta University in the Nun River Forest Reserve) [28, 29]. This case is also very different from the publicly owned lands created by the US land grant system under the Morrill Act of 1862, and very different from research lands managed by private universities .
Stockton Conservation Efforts in the Pinelands
Almost 50 years have passed since Stockton became a center for higher education and almost 40 years since the Pinelands National Reserve was formed. Throughout its history, Stockton has maintained its commitment to ecological stewardship. From the beginning, the Environmental Science/Studies program (ENVL) taught college students and had an impact on many regional magnet and high schools. This included campus visits by kids to study its environment, hosting the Governor’s School for the Environment for many years, and faculty engagement with students for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service “Envirothon” . Other achievements include sustainable campus infrastructure, such as a geothermal heating system, an aquifer thermal energy storage system, food waste recycling program, LEED-certified buildings, solar panel installments, and a Biodiversity Committee .
The Stockton campus mainly comprises pitch pine lowland forest, oak-pine upland forest, Atlantic white-cedar swamps, and hardwood swamps . Much of the campus forest was regularly harvested through the 1930s, when cutting was curtailed and the forests began to regenerate (Figure 2). Fire suppression was a common practice and logging was classified as development by the Pinelands Commission for many decades .
In 2013, the Pinelands Commission approved the first forest stewardship plan for public land in New Jersey on university lands. The Stockton Forest Management Plan (Text S2. https://stockton.edu/forest-management/) includes objectives to mitigate threats from insect pests and wildfire, develops and maintains habitat for wildlife, reintroduces forest disturbances, and engages student/public education and experimentation in a living laboratory [33, 34]. In the report, many species were identified as State or Federal species of concern. Two of these, the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and the Barred Owl (Strix varia) have been seen or have a high probability of nesting on our campus [34, 35]. Therefore, it is here in the heavily forested 800-ha campus that students are working to restore habitat for these and other cavity nesting species.
Active Learning for Environmental Students
To graduate from the ENVL program students must take a capstone course called Environmental Issues. The purpose of this course is to blend theory and practice and engage students directly with their local and regional environment. In one of the modules, students and faculty study cavity-nesting species native to the Pinelands and build new homes for them in a landscape that no longer supports their habitat.
The history of southern New Jersey includes war, fire, resource extraction, and most recently development . The original forest has very few old growth stands remaining. The resultant habitat loss, along with impacts from DDT, affected the re-population of many important species in the Pinelands region. Many of these species were originally inventoried on the campus , including the American Kestrel, Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker Woodpecker, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Wood Duck, Little Brown Bat, and Osprey. Notably, Stockton’s mascot is the Osprey and Southern NJ has internationally recognized migratory bird sites .
The fragmentation of the original forested landscape has prevented many species from finding suitable nest sites [38–40]. Those that do make homes struggle with predation , competition from invasive species , and even weather variability from climate change . In addition, many species prefer being near streams , lakes , old dead trees and snags [46, 47], mixed aged stands, cleared areas, and some may thrive in areas disturbed by frequent fire [48–50]. Many of these species are threatened or endangered . Their broad ranges require large forested areas with unbroken continuity [52, 53]. Stockton meets these parameters for cavity nesting species habitat but lacks old growth forest stands with natural cavities.
Therefore, humans are needed to build habitat boxes, which mimic cavities in hopes that these species will return . These can be for cavity nesting species and secondary cavity-nesting species (those that only use abandoned nests of others) . While successes are documented in abundance internationally, there has been no research on this conservation strategy in the Pinelands National Reserve. Studies show that species richness in restored forests was comparable to intact forests . Forest management or rehabilitation in conjunction with high availability of manmade habitat boxes leads to success . Nest boxes can bring back species that were once threatened or endangered [58–60]. The Stockton University site, located within the Pinelands National Reserve, is an optimal location for faculty and students to attempt this conservation exercise.
In this capstone course, students study different environmental issues each week. In the topic of environmental conflict/ethics, we study species and habitat restoration given the human impact on the landscape. Using a community-wide approach , invited professionals and experts give guest lectures about successful techniques and lessons learned from their experiences. This dialogue builds awareness and partnership between the students and faculty (University) and the regional community living and working in this protected space (National Reserve).
In addition, students spend three hours in a classroom lab each week, researching, mapping, and writing about problems in the field. For the “habitat + conflict lab” (Text S2), students must choose a species, research its regional population, identify what has caused its local decline, and consider any special threatened or endangered status. They also research diet, range, and the appropriate distance between conspecific nesting sites. Using Geographic Information Systems, they must consider the existing boxes mounted on campus (Figure 3). Part of the analysis is to critique existing nest boxes on their design, height, location, and orientation if there is no sign of habitation [44, 46, 62, 63]. Students then propose additional nest boxes on our main campus or other campuses, including our Coastal Research Center, Hammonton campus, Manahawkin campus, the formerly owned Seaview Resort, and new Atlantic City campus.
There are limitations to this study and initiative. At the habitat restoration level, the greatest challenge has been monitoring the boxes outside of the semesters and during the summer nesting period. During summers students are often involved with internships or other paid work. This shortcoming could be addressed by a research experience for undergraduate internal or external grant. Furthermore, as Stockton University continues to grow, it needs to build, and it subsequently impacts the campus environment. The new campus in Atlantic City will minimize development pressure on the main campus. Finally, at the regional level, even with decades of protection, there are still individuals and organizations fighting for even greater preservation restrictions or a loosening of them to allow for economic opportunities. This polarization stifles cooperation. A conservation leadership program might foster greater communication and collaboration between agencies and organizations.
In December 2013, students and faculty erected an osprey platform in Reeds Bay, with distant views of the Atlantic City casinos (Figure 4). Within a few months, a pair of Ospreys nested and successfully hatched chicks in this new home. It was an example of active student learning and engagement in the field, as well as successful collaboration between students, faculty, and NGOs [1, 64]. This is only one demonstration of how a university’s hands-on environmental education program can make a difference in conservation and successful habitat management within a protected area . Educators and students around the world should analyze their conservation areas and identify classroom activities to advance land restoration, regional partnership, and environmental restoration of these parks, forests, reserves, and preserves.
The recognition of the Pinelands has fostered a place for education and conservation. While learning in this protected area, students understand the impact that humans have on the landscape. They then conduct applied research to see the benefit one individual can have on their campus, on their regional environment, and on their Pinelands National Reserve. These types of projects create new partnerships with the university, local government, NGOs, and private businesses. Students and faculty have already been asked to research and monitor additional habitat boxes, on private land, elsewhere in the Pinelands National Reserve.
With the creation of the Pinelands National Reserve & the University in the Pines, important species are making a comeback with new homes.
What were the conflicts that led to the designation of the Pinelands National Reserve?
Why is the Pinelands National Reserve important?
What techniques could be useful in the protection of sensitive eco-regions in your state or country?
Did protection at the state, national, and global levels encourage ecological campus development by the university located within its boundary?
How important is early involvement in the regional planning process (e.g., protected areas, big development proposals, airports, etc.) for schools and universities?
What techniques can universities use to encourage interagency coordination and communication between all stakeholders?
Do universities in protected areas have an obligation for applied environmental education?
What are some methods by which students and student clubs can influence university decision-making? What can students do to influence local, regional, state, and federal government policies that may be enacted?
How can humans work to restore species habitat even if the landscape has been significantly altered?
What impact can your school or university have on its local environment, regardless of acreage and location (rural, suburban, or urban)?
Dr. Daniel Moscovici was responsible for project conceptualization, administration, investigation, writing, editing, visualization, methodology, and supervision.
Caitlin Clarke was responsible for writing, editing, methodology, and investigation.
We would like to acknowledge Drs. Claude Epstein and John Sinton (retired ENVL professors) for their review of the manuscript. We also acknowledge Nicole Hyde for her help on the Pinelands map. In addition, thanks to those faculty at Stockton who provided resources during the research phase of the paper. We would also like to thank certain undergraduate students who were involved in related independent research projects: Anthony Fetherman, Celenia Rivera, Chris Martin, Emily Palumbo, John McKeown, and Matt Lundholm. Finally, a special thanks to the ENVL Issues students who studied habitat potential for cavity nesting birds on our campus in the Pinelands.
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Text S1. Stockton Forest Management Plan - https://stockton.edu/forest-management/
Text S2. Environmental Issues Class Habitat Lab Assignment & Assignment Rubric. PDF
The geographic boundary of the Pinelands National Reserve and New Jersey Biosphere Reserve are almost identical but differ by 7,000 ha.