Like nearly all the woodlands in Northern New Jersey, Mahlon Dickerson Is hardly the primeval forest of Longfellow’s Evangeline.
The trees are the regrowth that followed centuries of settlement, first by the native population who farmed the land and later by settlers, according to Tim Matthews, district forester with the Warren County Soil Conservation District.
When white settlers came to northern New Jersey in the 1600s, they found large stands of oak and hickory and some white pine, but very little beech, birch or maple, possibly because the thicker bark on oak and hickory can withstand low fire, Matthews said. They also found the Lenape had cleared areas as large as 100 acres using controlled burning, still the best way to clear the understory, he added.
The Lenape farmed the big tracts for maize, changing the course of streams when needed, he explained.
The Dutch and English settlers also began farming, clearing land for pasture or crops. Eventually, every acre that could be farmed with a horse was farmed with a good deal cleared for pasture, Matthews noted.
Most of the land that would be farmed was already in agriculture by the Revolutionary War and was continued in agriculture through the mid-1800s, when the settlers moved to the flatter land in the Midwest. And later, when tractors replaced horses, that flatter land became even more attractive to farm, he said.
North Jersey’s hills were not the challenge to horse-drawn plows they became for tractors.
Although there was plenty of stone for building in most areas, settlers also used wood for their homes.
The most prevalent use of wood was to provide charcoal for the furnaces and iron forges.
Evidence of early iron mining is everywhere, from fenced off mine shafts to depressions in the earth to Picatinny Arsenal next to Mahlon Dickerson.
Matthews explained charcoal ran the furnaces necessary for processing iron ore until well into the 20th Century when the railroads started bringing in Pennsylvania coal and spurs were created to bring it straight to the furnaces.
With the loss of forests, the deer herds were so depleted that from 1903 to 1905 that the state was actually importing them. The deer brought in ate below four feet tall and opened up the understory for invasive species, notably barberry and Russian olive. These are not as appealing to deer as the native species, but they will eat opportunistically. Matthews said to a deer, oak seedlings are the equivalent of Hershey Bars.