The Pine Barrens are a unique ecosystem dominated by groundcover, shrub thickets, a variety of oaks and pitch pine trees which grow in sandy, acidic, and infertile dry upland soils. The Pine Barrens also contain a diverse range of wetland communities such as marshes, coastal plain ponds, bogs, and river corridors.
Often described as Long Island’s last remaining wilderness and one of the Northeast’s greatest natural treasures, the Central Pine Barrens covers more than 100,000 acres of public and privately-owned land in Suffolk County.
The Lab’s campus constitutes five percent of Long Island’s total 100,000-acre Central Pine Barrens preserve. With its gently rolling topography and its sandy soil, the Lab’s soils are mostly well drained, with the exception of six regulated wetlands and various seasonal ponds. The former home of an oak and chestnut forest that was cut and cleared for the construction of Camp Upton in 1917, the vegetation is in various stages of succession, and the remaining forested land now contains scrub oak and pitch pine native to the pine barrens, as well as some non-native trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
Since 1993, the Pine Barrens have been protected by the New York State’s Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act. The goal of the Act is to protect the land and its associated flora and fauna, wetlands, and surface water and groundwater which is the drinking-water supply for nearly 2 million people in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
Under the Lab’s Natural Resource Management Program, the Lab works to monitor and protect the site’s flora and fauna, and to assess the impact, if any, of the site’s past or present operations.
The undeveloped woodlands, grasslands, and wetland habitats found at the Lab site support some 230 plant species, including two species classified as threatened and two that are rare according to New York State, 15 animal species, and approximately 85 species of birds have been observed nesting on site. Because of its location within the Atlantic Flyway, more than 200 transitory bird species have been documented as visiting the site.
In the Peconic River environs some 10 species of fish have been identified as endemic to the site including the banded sunfish and the swamp darter, both of which are threatened in New York State. Other wetlands on site, including marshes, ponds, and retention basins, have been found to host 13 amphibian and 12 reptile species. Ecological studies have confirmed 26 breeding locations on site for the New York State endangered eastern tiger salamander.
The Laboratory actively monitors and manages the populations of several species including the resident Canada goose population, wild turkey, and white-tailed deer. The geese are managed to help ensure that they do not reach numbers that would cause safety and health concerns. The population of wild turkeys on site appears to have stabilized in recent years at approximately 300 birds. Since 2009, a 5-day hunt has been held in Suffolk County with little or no evidence of effect on the BNL turkey population. The Lab conducts annual population surveys of white-tailed deer. In a 2012 fall survey, it was estimated that there were more than 600 deer on site. High deer populations are a regional problem. The Laboratory has developed a management plan to address the issue.
Toward ensuring the sustainability of the plants and animals that make their home in the Long Island Central Pine Barrens, the U.S. Department of Energy permanently set aside 530 acres at BNL, which is some ten percent of the Lab’s land. Established in 2000 as the Upton Ecological and Research Reserve, this acreage is located on the Lab’s eastern boundary and encompasses acreage within the Long Island Pine Barrens’ core preservation area and along the Peconic River corridor.
Overseen by the Foundation for Ecological Research in the Northeast, or FERN since 2005, the Upton Reserve is managed for its key ecological values and as an area for ecological research. Ecological and wildlife research is conducted to assist in understanding how the natural environment works. The information gained from these projects is used to make management decisions at the Laboratory. Many of the projects are conducted with the assistance of interns, including high school and undergraduate students.
The Peconic River headwaters are located just west of the Laboratory. This 15-mile long river flows from west to east traveling through the Lab and serves as the dividing line between several towns -- Brookhaven, Riverhead, and Southampton -- before emptying into Flanders Bay.
The groundwater-fed, naturally acidic, nutrient-poor river is recreational resource that is enjoyed by anglers, paddlers, and nature photographers alike, and it provides an inviting and successful habitat for wildlife both on site and off.