A green flower with fuzzy leaves opens up in bloom.
Hairy Field Chickweed Hairy Field Chickweed can be found at the State Line Serpentine Barrens near the PA-MD border. © George C. Gress

Places We Protect

State-Line Serpentine Barrens

The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania

Located along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, the State Line Serpentine Barrens contains some of the last major remnants of serpentine grassland in eastern North

Overview

Prior to European settlement, Native Americans used fires to attract large animals grazing across grasslands stretching from New York, across central Maryland and south to Alabama. Cactus-like vegetation thrived in this dry landscape. As more and more settlement took place, these grasslands, once sustained by fires and grazing, disappeared. Today, they persist in only a few places.

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. This habitat, while lacking nutrients, supports unusual, rare or endangered species 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 quarrying the serpentine rock. The partnership blocked the project, and prevented further damage to surrounding natural areas. Since then, TNC has worked with partners at the township, county and state levels, as well as with private individuals, to permanently protect and manage additional tracts containing this fragile habitat.

What’s At Stake

Prairie grasses and pitch pines have adapted to survive and thrive in the wake of regular fire disturbances. In fact, this ecosystem needs periodic fire to wipe out the forest and old-field plants that begin to invade when fire is suppressed.

Regular fires promote prairie grasses, pitch pines, wildflower meadows and cliff outcroppings that serve as prime habitat for rare plants such as the round-leaved fameflower, very hairy chickweed and the serpentine aster, found nowhere else in the world. Additional plants include a diverse fern community of marginal shield, hay scented, Christmas, interrupted and maidenhair, and warm-season grasses such as prairie dropseed and arrow-feather.

The area also harbors 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—have also been observed.

Threats

Succession—the gradual replacement of barrens vegetation by woodlands—caused by urban development, hinders fire and grazing required to maintain this habitat. Illegal dumping, mining and invasive plants also jeopardize this globally-significant habitat.

Milestones

TNC joined Concerned Citizens of West Nottingham Township in 1979 to oppose a proposed serpentine rock quarry, and has acquired additional tracts containing this fragile habitat since then. In some cases, TnC transferred ownership to like-minded public and private landowners. In other cases, TNC retained ownership and long-term management, including prescribed burning, tree cutting, leaf removal, replanting serpentine grasses, protecting buffer lands, maintaining trails, and mapping and monitoring.

  • Goat Hill: Acquired 592 acres in 1983. Transferred 100 acres to the State of Pennsylvania in 1990. Assist with managing the habitat.
  • Chrome: Acquired initial acreage in 1991 and additional lands in 1998 and 2002. 
  • Nottingham: Entered into a management agreement with Nottingham County Park in 2000 to manage, restore and pursue research at the site.
  • Rock Springs: Acquired 175 acres in 1995. Transferred the property to the Lancaster County Conservancy in 2005.

Things To Do

Goat Hill Barrens is accessible from February through September (and closed to the public from October through January). The Rose Trail traverses a portion of the preserve as well as part of the adjacent William Penn State Forest. Note that while the state forest remains open in hunting season, visitors should wear blaze orange or other high-visibility clothing during that time.

Chrome Barrens is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year, from dawn to dusk. In the spring, catch glimpses of migrant birds and wildflowers. The fall offers colorful foliage. Late summer marks the peak of butterfly season.

Nottingham County Park is open from 8 a.m. to dusk, seven days a week for nature-based and recreational activities, including eight miles of horseback riding and hiking trails ideal for viewing rare flowers and plants, rock formations and abandoned quarries in the pitch pine forest. The park also contains picnic pavilions with cooking grills, a one-mile fitness trail, fishing, a horse show ring and playgrounds. Many of the facilities are accessible to the handicapped.

Three barrens sites are not open to the public. The only way to witness the fragile habitat at New Texas Barrens is to participate in one of the Conservancy’s volunteer workdays. While open only for scientific research, interested visitors can arrange to take interpretive hikes at Rock Springs with the Lancaster County Conservancy. Located in Northern Cecil County, Maryland, Pilot may be accessed for scientific research with prior permission from the Conservancy. 

Support Pennsylvania Nature

Help us sustain a vibrant future for the communities and wildlife that share Pennsylvania’s diverse landscape.