BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — Wearing tall waders, David Sauder walked across partially submerged concrete trails that snake through part of the Unexpected Wildlife Refuge, a 767-acre forest and wetland named after the road that leads to it.
Murky brown water surrounded trees where there was once a walkway for visitors.
At points, Sauder said, it was up to three feet deep.
Opened in 1961, it is one of a few South Jersey wildlife trails affected by the record rainfall last year, which continued into 2019.
“There’s never before been a time I wasn’t able to navigate the trails,” said Sauder, a trustee for the refuge who’s been involved with the nonprofit for the past 30 years.
Atlantic City International Airport recorded more than 68 inches of precipitation in 2018, breaking a 70-year record. That pattern hasn’t slowed, with the wettest Feb. 12 in recorded history taking place this year.
All of that rain is affecting nature-lovers hoping to experience wildlife up-close. With some trails awash, access is cut off in remote parts of the Pinelands.
About a quarter of the Unexpected Wildlife Refuge is wetlands, and visitors typically use concrete walkways to explore the area, but those trails are unwalkable now. It’s been an issue for years, Sauder said, but has become worse more recently.
“For 30 years, its been dry,” he said. “You could walk over the boardwalks. ... Now you need knee-high waders.”
Twenty miles north, some trails in the Wharton State Forest are cut off due to excess rain, said Jason Howell, stewardship coordinator for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
That’s because many of the Pinelands trails were built decades ago to sustain average precipitation, not the extreme weather seen recently.
Howell, who is acquainted with the state forest, said part of the 1.1-mile Tom’s Pond Trail are inundated, a path that at points runs along the Mullica River. Much of the lengthy Batano Trail, which sits next to the Batsto River, is also underwater, he said.
“Most trails and sand roads simply weren’t made with this level of sustained high water,” he said. “This has made travel to the more remote parts of the reserve very difficult.”
Plants and trees in the pinelands are affected by heavy rains too.
Scientists at Rutgers University are studying “ghost forests” across South Jersey — large swaths of dead Atlantic white cedar trees that stand at the edge of salt marshes along the Mullica River. The state once had 115,000 acres of the trees, but is now down to about 30,000 acres. Researchers fear more frequent storms, climate change and saltwater intrusion are worsening the decades-old problem.
Recent storms such as Hurricane Irene and winter storm Jonas caused extensive flooding that forced salt water into upland wooded areas where it normally wouldn’t flow, killing trees that cannot tolerate salt water.
Caretakers at the Unexpected Wildlife Refuge might have to spend money to remedy their waterlogged situation.
The nonprofit is considering elevating five miles of trails for its 300 annual visitors. The group recently hired an engineering consultant for the project. Sauder doesn’t know the cost yet, but said it could be thousands of dollars and would require prior approval from the Pinelands Commission.
For now, though, they’re paying close attention to future forecasts.
“If this were to continue, we’d have to make drastic changes,” Sauder said. “Maybe this is an anomaly... (But) it could be a trend that may not let up.”