Sandy Victims: Stately Cedars

Colin McLaughlin surveys hundreds of 60- to 80-foot Atlantic white cedars that covered a swampy forest area in Chatsworth, Burlington County, "like pickup sticks." The devastation to the valuable 80- to 100-year-old trees was not detected immediately after Sandy.
Colin McLaughlin surveys hundreds of 60- to 80-foot Atlantic white cedars that covered a swampy forest area in Chatsworth, Burlington County, "like pickup sticks." The devastation to the valuable 80- to 100-year-old trees was not detected immediately after Sandy. (BOB WILLIAMS)
Posted: February 25, 2013

Colin McLaughlin had never seen such devastation.

In a swampy forest in Chatsworth, Burlington County, he stood on a fallen tree, surrounded by hundreds of other 60- to 80-foot Atlantic white cedars that covered the ground "like pickup sticks."

The increasingly rare and valuable cedars were knocked down in a remote area off Route 563 as the megastorm Sandy barreled through New Jersey in October. The damage was not immediately discovered.

"I was stunned," said McLaughlin, head of operations for Advanced Forestry Solutions of Pittsgrove, who will carefully sort through the tangled trees to reclaim what he can for a lumber mill.

"You sort through them one by one, trying not to affect the others around it," he said. "You don't know how they're going to fall."

As the state continues to deal with Sandy's pressing human needs, officials and forestry experts are finding another layer of storm damage - to the dwindling number of cedar stands, often found in wetland areas.

The state has conducted some aerial surveys, and landowners have reported several cedar forests flattened by Sandy's winds, which gusted up to 89 miles an hour. Some aerial checks have been made at Double Trouble State Park, part of the Pinelands in Ocean County.

Officials don't have a statewide inventory identifying the trees' locations.

But certified forester Bob Williams said he had seen extensive cedar damage amid the 100,000 acres of private forests he manages across South Jersey, especially in Burlington, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties. The tree is native only to North America.

"We could easily be talking about hundreds of acres" of cedars, said Williams, vice president of forestry operations at Land Dimensions Engineering in Glassboro. "We're dealing with a resource that's on the edge."

Williams manages the Chatsworth site in Woodland Township where he and McLaughlin were dwarfed by downed 80- to 100-year-old trees.

"When I saw it the first time, I said, 'Wow, holy cow,' " he said. "When you walk in a standing cedar forest, it's emotional and dramatic.

"I had an idea of what could happen from Sandy, so I wasn't surprised," he said, "but I was amazed because [the problem] was so big and complex."

Atlantic white cedars covered about 500,000 acres along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico during colonial times. By some estimates, they now may occupy only about 50,000 acres, with much of them in New Jersey and in North Carolina's and Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp.

Because of its light weight and resistance to rot, cedar wood has been used since settlers first arrived, for shingles, siding, and boats. Independence Hall is roofed with cedar shingles.

The losses from logging, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and saltwater intrusion into marshlands during storm surges have been so serious that forestry experts regularly meet to discuss how to halt the decline.

"We have had major setbacks, but we don't know the scale of it," said George Zimmermann, an Atlantic white-cedar expert and professor of environmental sciences at Stockton College. "I've been pushing to find out how much [damage] we have."

Zimmermann will discuss the problem next Saturday before the nonprofit New Jersey Forestry Association at the Campus Center of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Satellite and aerial surveys could help officials compile an inventory, he said.

"If you are a store owner, you want to know what's on the shelves, how fast it's selling, and what brands are selling," Zimmermann said. "We have a store full of forests, and we have to come up with a plan for the Atlantic white cedar."

The state "is still assessing state lands" after Sandy's destruction, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Parks and forestry workers have "dedicated most of their time since the storm in cleaning up our parks and getting them to a point where they're safe to visit again."

Other trees, including the Longleaf pine and Bald cypress, also have seen a sharp decline in the eastern United States, but the Atlantic white cedar appears more threatened, partly because it's so vulnerable.

"It grows in wet soil, and its root system is shallow, so it's susceptible to windthrow - while other trees in the forest are not affected," Williams said.

Some forests have been affected by development and draining of lands, which alters the water-table level, a crucial element in the cedar's growth, said Eric Hinesley, a retired professor of horticulture at North Carolina State University, who has monitored the trees at the Great Dismal Swamp.

The trees "are important ecologically because they provide a critical habitat for plants and wildlife species," Williams said. "They create a microclimate where you find sphagnum moss, rare wild orchids, timber rattlesnakes, the Pine Barrens tree frog, and a butterfly called Hessel's Hairstreak."

Once the cedars fall, their seeds can help regenerate the forest when the conditions are right, if other hardwood species don't invade, and if deer don't eat the seedlings, he said.

Faced with extensive damage, forestry officials can leave the fallen trees and allow natural regeneration, or remove the valuable wood and use the money from its sale to help reestablish the forest, with plantings and fences to keep away deer.

"Nature's fury is amazing," said Deborah McLaughlin, owner of Advanced Forestry Solutions, after learning of the cedar devastation in Chatworth. Sandy's winds "hit one [tree] after another like dominoes.

"We're trying to retrieve as much as we can," she said. "It's so important to manage the forest."

Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or


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