Native Americans once used fires to attract large animals grazing across grasslands stretching from New York, across central Maryland, and south to Alabama. Cactus-like vegetation, including serpentine aster and round-leaved fameflower, thrived in the dry landscape and even perpetuated it with their flammability. As European settlers began dominating the region, grasslands once sustained by fires and grazing disappeared. In only a few places, these habitats persisted among thin soils covering outcrops of serpentine rock.
Located along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, the State-Line Serpentine Barrens contains some of the last major remnants of serpentine grassland in eastern North America. The thin soils covering this light-green bedrock contain high levels of nickel, chromium and other metals that prove toxic to most plants and animals. However, while lacking nutrients, this habitat supports numerous species—many rare or endangered—that have adapted to the harsh environment over thousands of years.
The Nature Conservancy has worked to protect globally rare serpentine barrens since 1979, when it joined Chester County’s “Concerned Citizens of West Nottingham Township” to oppose the quarrying of serpentine rock near the Goat Hill Barrens. The partnership succeeded in blocking the project, and prevented further damage to surrounding natural areas. Since then, the Conservancy has acquired additional land near the Goat Hill Barrens, transferring some of it to the state for a rare-plant preserve. Today, the Conservancy assists with conservation at the Goat Hill Barrens, and also owns and manages the Chrome Barrens located nearby.
In another part of Chester County, the Conservancy has a management agreement with Nottingham County Park to manage and restore its 630-acre barrens site. rResearch includes assessing practices such as grazing and prescribed fire. A similar agreement exists with a private landowner at the New Texas Barrens in Lancaster County, where the Conservancy conducts ecological restoration and habitat improvement to ensure that unique barren habitats continue to thrive.
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Sixty square miles containing major serpentine barrens at four sites: Goat Hill Barrens (602 acres), Chrome Barrens (390 acres), New Texas Barrens (210 acres), Nottingham Barrens (630 acres)
Chester and Lancaster counties
What You’ll See
Rare plants such as the round-leaved fameflower, very hairy chickweed and the serpentine aster, found only in the serpentine barrens of southeastern Pennsylvania and northeastern Maryland. Moths and butterflies, including red-banded hairstreak, cobsew skipper, barrens buckmoth, mottled duskywing and dusted skipper. Nesting and migratory birds including the bobwhite quail, barred owl, declining whip-poor-will and 17 species of warblers. A diverse fern community, including marginal shield, hay scented, Christmas, interrupted and maidenhair. Warm-season grasses such as prairie dropseed and arrow-feather. Pitch pine forest that regenerates after fire.
Succession — the gradual replacement of barrens vegetation by woodlands — caused by urban development, which hinders fire and grazing required to maintain this habitat. Illegal dumping. Mining. Invasive plants, including autumn olive, ailanthus, black locust and multi-flora rose.
Restoring and maintaining barrens habitats through prescribed burning, tree cutting and the mechanical removal of humus. Replanting serpentine grasses. Acquiring and protecting buffer lands. Completing a 5-year monitoring program at Goat Hill. Recruiting volunteers to maintain and map trails.
Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, Chester County Parks & Recreation Department, PECO, Elk Township, Lancaster County Conservancy
Things To Do
Visit the Goat Hill, Chrome and Nottingham barrens to pursue a variety of nature-based and recreational activities. The New Texas Barrens are not open to the public due to the fragile nature of the habitat. However, interested conservationists may view the preserve during a volunteer workday.