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sandy hook nj american holly forest mary jasch

US Army Saves Holly Forest

by Mary Jasch

Between the dunes of Sandy Hook, the northernmost spit of oceanside land in New Jersey, lives the largest American holly forest on the East Coast. The forest exists, thanks largely, to the United States Army.

Sandy Hook lies at the western entrance to the New York Harbor, and with Jamaica Bay and Staten Island to the east, forms Gateway National Recreation Area. This positioning fostered military presence on the Hook for defense of New York City, thereby saving the forest from development.

The land has been in the hands of war and peace since the British used it during the American Revolution. What is now the Visitor Center was a U.S. Life-Saving Station in the 19th century. The land was used for defense in the War of 1812 and later as the first U.S. Army Proving Ground for testing weapons. Fort Hancock was built there for New York City's protection in the early 20th century. They later brought in anti-aircraft defenses and then, in the 1950s, the Nike Air Defense Missiles raked the sky. The fort remained in force until 1974. The oldest standing lighthouse in the country, built in 1764, is on The Hook.

Since the early 1800s, the penninsula's ever-changing landscape of beach, dunes and hollows has also offered protection to endangered species like the piping plover and osprey, and to fragile habitat including the American holly maritime forest.

Buried arsenals still poke through the sand, and beachcombers may stumble over concrete walls of old munitions bunkers, but here among the remnants the slow-growing American holly trees have been allowed to mature. Some are close to 200 years old now, having just reached maturity in the last half-century or so. The oldest part of the American holly forest is a 64-acre restricted area where scheduled tours are given.

“The fact is that the forest is a fortunate outgrowth of Sandy Hook as a military base," says Lou Venuto, chief of interpretation for Sandy Hook. “The peninsula began being purchased by the Army in 1820. Soon after, all 1600 acres were in protected hands. The Army was the first one to close it off and keep people out of the holly forest ¬ it's for the same reasons we have kept the beaches undeveloped."

Some people managed to get into the forest even then. “Early on it was just locals looking for wood,"¯ says Venuto. “They stopped that and, later on, taking holly for Christmas decorations was restricted to the officers."¯

A walk through the holly woods begins at the Visitor Center. Get a map and strike out on the sandy Old Dune Trail. The air is magnificent ¬ clean and penetrating with a touch of the sea.

In the hollow between the primary dune near the beach and a more inland secondary dune, the holly trees grow to about 30 feet tall.

“They don't get real tall here because they get sheared off by the wind ¬ salt pruning,"¯ explains Bruce Lane, natural resources supervisor. “The wind carries salt. The parts of the trees behind the dune are protected. The lower parts don't get hit by salt or when it hits the higher part, salt water kills the leaves at a certain height."¯

Plus, the trees grow in an unfertile sandy environment, which means it takes a long time to supply nutrients to the plants. So, between the salt spray and soil, the trees take a long time to reach maturity. An American holly growing inland may grow up to 70 feet tall, but on the barrier peninsula, they're stunted. They grow about one inch every 10 to 15 years.

Although the sea is just across the dune, the roots of the holly trees grow down into a fresh water lens that lies above the heavier salt water.

The trunks of the forest trees are a study in contrast ¬ smooth grey holly, black blocks of cherry and shaggy red cedar. The peculiar understory is quite visible on the winter trail ¬ seaside goldenrod, native prickly pear cactus, beach plum shrubs that resemble roses, bayberry of candle fame, greenbriar vine, switchgrass, broom sedge and nut sedge.

The trail ambles for 11 miles through the dunes and hollows with their accompanying plants that have varying tolerances to salt spray and deep sand. In some spots, perennial dunegrass swirls circles in the sand from being windblown. Its roots and foliage trap the sand and hold the dune together; the accumulation of sand helps the plant grow healthier. The grass and the sand - perfect together.

To see a dense stand of American holly, Ilex opaca, park roadside near the Fishing Beach and first check out the 1937 ammo bunker being overtaken by dunes. Pick up the trail to the north. It feels wilder here with taller shrubs, vines and holly of all ages. The naked and gnarly trunks look prehistoric and magical. Soon the forest is solid holly. Some are roundly wide and the females are covered in red berries that are eaten by birds ¬ propagators of the species.

Wildlife includes common raccoon, red fox, cottontail, hairy and downy woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a few snakes and terrapins. There are no deer.

A walk on the beach brings sights of a different tribe ¬ horseshoe, mole and ghost crabs, herring, long-billed and great black back gulls, banded plover, sandpiper and other stunning creatures of the sea. Perhaps the most stunning of all is the golden color of the setting sun on the buildings of Jersey City at the northern tip of the harbor.

“The holly forest is a climax forest on the barrier beach and surrounding that is a maritime forest," says Lane. “Sandy Hook is unique because there's not much left of coastal New Jersey that isn't developed. There are not many of these areas left."¯ It's not often one hears of the actions of everyday people, let alone the machinations of war, as life-sustaining to the natural environment. It is refreshing to know that this is the case on Sandy Hook.

Lane requests that plants and animals be left undisturbed.

Gateway National Recreation Area
Sandy Hook Visitor Center
732-872-5970 or
Ferry service in summer from Manhattan!

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published January 01, 2004

Photos to enlarge

The Old Dune Trail

Sandy trail

Dunegrass stabilizes the sand

Gull on the beach

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