Ossipee Pine Barrens

photo-barrensThousands of years ago, melting glaciers left extensive sand deposits between and around Ossipee Lake and Silver Lake, which for many years were combined as one “pro-glacial lake.” Today, New Hampshire’s last viable pitch pine scrub oak barrens is found on these sandy soils.

Pitch pine scrub oak barrens are one of the world’s rarest forest ecosystems and the Ossipee Pine Barrens is one of highest protection priorities of The Nature Conservancy’s New Hampshire Chapter. Less than 2,000 acres remain of what was once a 7,000 acre ecosystem. The Barrens preserve is home to numerous rare lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) species and several declining shrubland birds, including the common nighthawk and whip-poor-will, which may have the highest densities in the state in this location.

Pines barrens used to exist in the Manchester, Nashua and Concord areas but have all but disappeared. The Ossipee Pine Barrens continues to be a functional system and owes much of its existence to New Hampshire’s unique colonial and land-use history.

Pine Barrens in History
The first settlers arrived in the Ossipee area in 1750. These settlers were subsistence farmers and loggers who cut wood to build their homes. They tried farming in the area but the well-drained sandy acidic soil was not conducive to good agriculture, so the land was deemed “barren.” The land and soil were superior for growing trees, however, particularly white and pitch pine.

At this time Great Britain, which was emerging as the leading colonial power primarily through the efforts of its navy, reached a crisis: it began to run out of wood to build ships. To meet this growing demand it looked to the colonies, and especially to what is now New Hampshire and Maine. The two states’ extensive pine and oak forests supplied much of the wood for ships built along the coast, especially in the Portsmouth area. Local place names in Carroll County bear this out: “Kingswood” High School, “King Pine” ski area and others are testaments to the colonial history.

The Mast Road
Even our current road system reminds us of our past. New Hampshire’s Route 16 from the Ossipee Pine Barrens south to Portsmouth was known as a “mast” road, and it is essentially unchanged in its path from colonial days. The road was used to haul huge white pine logs – up to 150 feet long – to Portsmouth for masts and spars for shipbuilding.

White pine serves this purpose very well. It grows straight and long but is very strong, relatively light and easy to work with. As a major road, Route 16 is an anomaly for New England road building. The road is very straight and does not run through any towns until it reaches Portsmouth. Both of these design characteristics were necessary to haul huge logs to their market. Accounts of this effort describe the grueling task of felling, de-limbing and hauling trees to market from Tamworth to Portsmouth, which took three weeks and required 24 oxen to travel the 60-mile route.

Pitch Pine
But why is all of this important to the pitch pine? Pitch pine is the opposite of white pine in terms of use. Twisted and brittle, it is difficult to work with and not strong. But pitch pine had important colonial uses too, as pitch and caulking for ships, and for boiling down to use as turpentine (a colonial medicine, not for paint use) as well as torches and fenceposts.

Most of these uses required live trees, and pitch pine was often scored to extract its pitch much like rubber trees. So for the most part pitch pines were not cut down but left growing while its stronger, faster-growing competitor, the white pine, was removed for buildings and ships. That is one of the reasons that the Ossipee Pine Barrens survive today.

For More Information
The Nature Conservancy owns the barrens and other properties on and near the lake which are open to the public. It periodically offers field trips. For information on the preserve, and for maps and parking information, check their NH website.