New Jersey has purchased more than 5,000 acres of forest and wetlands to create a new preserve in the Pinelands.

The land sold for $9.7 million and represents the largest state acquisition in years.

 

The peaceful expanse of marshes, meadows and pine forests is just north of the Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area, and about 20 miles west of Atlantic City in the Great Egg Harbor River watershed.

In the southern part of the preserve, a section of wetlands is overlooked by a stand of white pines that is home to a bald eagle.

"This particular nest has been here about four years," said Frank Burns of Smithville, N.J. "But I can remember as a young boy in second grade, there was one right up the creek from here not too far, so they've been on the property a long time."

Along with a dozen other men from Atlantic City, Burns' grandfather bought all but about 100 acres of the land in the 1940s. They kept it as a tree farm and hunting preserve, and handed it down from generation to generation until ownership became too fragmented to continue.

"I've been coming here for over 60 years," Burns said. "It's just a nice quiet place to be, I've done a lot of hunting here, I've done a lot of just walking around."

New Jersey head of the Nature Conservancy Barbara Brummer said keeping the wetlands undeveloped is important. They form a buffer zone for storm surges and a rising sea level.

"We just had that evidence with Sandy coming through here," Brummer said. "This property was able to absorb a lot of the water that came up from the storm surge, which helps to protect your coastal communities and developed areas."

Brummer's organization and the Pinelands Commission supplied about a third of the money to buy the land. Most of the rest came from the state's Green Acres program, which runs out of its current allocation this year.

At a press event announcing the acquisition, longtime conservationist Michael Catania urged the state to again fund the program.

"For more than 50 years now, we've been able to protect something like almost 700,000 acres," said Catania, president of Conservation Resources, Inc. "But we are really in danger of not being able to continue that legacy. It is just absolutely critical to future generations that we continue that work."

The purchase is a win for conservationists. But for Frank Burns, handing over his family's claim on a personal place of refuge was bittersweet.

"It's the first time I've ever been on the property where I was a guest," Burns said Thursday. "So it's very strange."

The preserve is now open to the public, who will be able to hunt, fish and hike there, just like Burns has been doing since he was a boy.


Photos by Nathaniel Hamilton