Pinelands tract is teeming with life.

Preserve gets 473 acres in 'milestone' acquisition

Summer volunteers work at the Franklin Parker Preserve. The Zemel acquisition in Woodland Twp. expands this preserve. (New Jersey Conservation Foundation)

With its winding sandy roads, pristine forests, and tea-color creeks, the land has an ethereal, fairy-tale quality.

It is dominated by pitch pine uplands, and contains the headwaters of Biddle's Branch and Goodwater Run, both tributaries of the Wading River.

And the inhabitants include endangered species such as bobcat and bald eagle, and threatened species such as the barred owl, northern pine snake, and Pine Barrens tree frog.

This 473-acre tract has been added to the Franklin Parker Preserve, a vast Pinelands area surrounded by the Brendan T. Byrne, Bass River, Wharton, and Penn State Forests and the Greenwood Wildlife Management Area.

The former Zemel property - along Routes 72 and 532 in Woodland Township - was purchased June 24 for $418,142 by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit land preservation group that manages the preserve. The funds, from a public-private partnership of contributors, increased the preserve's size from 9,770 to 10,243 acres.

"This is the first major expansion of the Franklin Parker Preserve since it was established in 2003," said Michele S. Byers, executive director.

The acquisition "is important to protect the natural resources, the pitch pine, wildlife, and water quality," said Greg Romano, assistant director of the foundation and its director of statewide land acquisition.

Water filtered through the former Zemel property flows into the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, a shallow trove of 17 trillion gallons of freshwater that is the lifeblood of the Pine Barrens, and provides drinking water for one million residents and millions of other visitors.

The purchase "also gives the public the opportunity to enjoy this property - through bird watching, hiking, biking, and nature photography," Romano said.

The land was paid for with funds provided by the state Green Acres Program, the Victoria Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Helen and William Mazer Foundation, and the Pinelands Commission, as well as by private funds raised by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, including a lead gift from Nora Hayes.

"Located in the core of the Pinelands National Reserve, the Franklin Parker Preserve is noteworthy for its former cranberry bogs that now provide ecologically important wetlands habitat," said Richard Boornazian, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"We are proud to have played a big role in the conservation of this truly remarkable place and in helping the New Jersey Conservation Foundation reach this milestone."

The land "provides habitat for a diversity of species, and it's great that it will be protected forever as part of the Franklin Parker Preserve," said Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation.

In addition to wildlife, dozens of rare plants have been discovered at the preserve, including Pine Barrens gentian, bog asphodel, curly grass fern, yellow-fringed orchid, little ladies'-tresses orchid, and pencil flower.

The preserve has 28 miles of blazed trails, including a section of the 53-mile Batona Trail, connecting many recreational and historic sites in the Pine Barrens.

It's an "ecological gem," said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, an independent state agency that oversees the Pinelands National Reserve. "By permanently preserving this land, we can help ensure that the Pinelands and its tremendous resources are protected far into the future."

When kept intact, forests play a critical role in recharging and filtering groundwater and maintaining sensitive ecosystems, conservation officials said.

"This [acquisition] is a milestone for the one million people whose tap water flows from the Kirkwood-Cohansey, and for the many who come again and again to enjoy the Pine Barrens," said Peter Howell, executive vice president of capital and research programs for Open Space Institute, a New York-based land conversation group.

"It is gratifying to realize the decades-old vision of protecting the aquifer through conservation of this important forestland," he said.

856-779-3833 InkyEBC