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Healing old wounds.

Rob Fimbel is trying to put nature back the way it was--a monumental task considering he's dealing with a patch of southern New Jersey that's been bombed back to bare soil.

Fifty years ago this slab of Jersey's famed Pine Barrens (now called Pinelands) was a forest of pitch pines and oaks, but that was before the Department of Defense began using the area as a weapons test range. Now the Warren Grove Test Range is a checkerboard of woods interspersed with barren stretches of sand and crab grass.

Robert Fimbel, 36, a graduate student at Rutgers University, selected 65 areas for test plots in the 8,500-acre bombing range. He's put in pitch pine, oak, bayberry, and grasses, mulched and fertilized with composted sewage sludge. The idea is to find the combination of plants requiring the lowest maintenance while blending with the natural landscape of pitch pine.

In the early 1940s, the Navy and later the Air National Guard began clearing sites for bombing targets. No doubt more than one wet-behind-the-ears pilot missed his target by a good country mile, and the small clearings grew into vast desolate stretches of Pine Barren sand.

Enter Rob Fimbel. He heard of the test range, and in 1987 began two years of collecting seeds, growing them to seedlings, and planting the young pines. Some are now three feet tall, some even taller.

The task has been a Sisyphean one. The first setback came just one day after the initial planting. Of 800 seedlings, only three survived overnight. There must have been a deer or two with really full bellies. "The deer didn't just nip 'em, they yanked 'em out," says Fimbel.

Undaunted, Fimbel replanted and this time wrapped the young pines in plastic mesh. Today, instead of relying on tender stock grown in a greenhouse, he uses pine seedlings grown in an outdoor nursery to yield a tougher plant.

Reclaiming a pine barrens takes a hefty dose of ingenuity. When nature does the job unaided, the intense heat of a forest fire is needed for pitch pine cones to open and release their seeds. Forest fires only occur every eight to 12 years in this piney area however, so instead of waiting for nature, Fimbel gathered cones and zapped them in a microwave. He tried dropping others in boiling water --the method he recommends.

Fimbel, who went into forestry because he likes "doing things outdoors," says he realizes that bombing ranges are necessities.

"I believe our country needs a defense system, though I hate that we have to fight over this little speck called earth in the middle of Godknows-where. But I'd rather see continued use of this area than disturb another area."

The local wildlife seems to have adapted, he points out. He recalls spotting a family of coyotes during an evening jog near one of the target areas. "There's no sense disturbing animals somewhere else," he concludes, "if the ones in this area seem to know the bombings are going on and happen as regular as clockwork."

Fimbel will return in about five years to evaluate the results of the project. One outcome has been a set of recommendations for techniques for reforesting sand and gravel pits and other military installations in the Pine Barrens. As Rob Fimbel told a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, "I just sleep good at night knowing I've helped to undo some of the things we've done. It's a way to kind of give something back."

Rob Fimbel is reforesting old bomb sites with pygmy pitch pines, which are adapted to the Pine Barrens' sandy soil and frequent forest fires.
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Title Annotation:Earthkeepers; reforester Rob Fimbel
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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