The seemingly endless woods flanking Route 72 might seem just "trees, trees, trees" to most motorists whizzing to and from the Jersey Shore.
But to Russell Juelg, these were not mere "woods" he was visiting on this drizzly afternoon, but one of the newest additions to the vast and rustic Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pinelands of Burlington County.
"I had to use four-wheel drive the last time I came through here," he said, inching his car along a narrow sand road. Then he paused alongside a broad patch of low, gauzy green and got out of the car.
"Sand myrtle," he said, crouching down. "See the tiny white flowers at the tips? And these beautiful pink stamens?"
Shrubs. Snakes. Flowers. Bogs. Birds. These make mere "woods" come alive for Juelg, a professional land steward for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
These woods have a new name, too. The tract where Juelg pointed out sand myrtle is now "Woodland North," a 474-acre property that the foundation acquired in July.
Behind it stands "Woodland South," a 1,101-acre tract whose acquisition the foundation announced last week. Here, Juelg had shortly before pointed out stands of Atlantic white cedar coated with smokey-green santee lichen and blackjack oaks streaked with shield lichen. He touched a pen tip to the budding cones of a pitch pine, the forest's most abundant tree.
"These are males," he explained. "They're about to release their pollen."
The two tracts expand the Parker Preserve to 11,379 acres. The Conservation Foundation, based in Somerset County, established the preserve in 2003 with the purchase of the 9,300-acre A.R. DeMarco cranberry and blueberry farm.
Named for Franklin Parker, first chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the preserve surrounds Chatsworth village in Woodland Township and is a habitat for rare species such as the bald eagle, Barrens tree frog, barred owl, Northern pine snake, and bobcat.
It is also home to dozens of rare plants, including the bog asphodel, pencil flower, curly grass fern, Pine Barrens gentian, and numerous orchids.
"There aren't that many really large properties in private ownership that are left in the immediate vicinity of Franklin Parker Preserve," Tim Morris, the foundation's director of stewardship, said earlier last week. "So it was ideal for us."
In March the foundation also acquired 811 acres six miles north of these properties, in Pemberton Township near Mount Misery Road. That site, which flanks Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, will be a preserve unto itself.
"We think this whole area is really high-quality conservation property," said Morris.
Many of the preserve's animal species, including timber rattlers, corn snakes, and pine snakes, migrate from the adjacent state forests to the preserve, he said, "so keeping those migratory ranges open is vital."
The greatest threat to these snakes are paved roads, he said, because many are killed by vehicles as they inch their way across them. The preserve's staff tracks their movements with implanted radio chips.
After showing off the sand myrtle, Juelg drove onto County Route 532 to visit a wetlands in Woodland North. Several yards off the road he found a spring-fed bog that was likely the headwater of one of the many streams that feed into the Wading River.
"You can tell by the plant species," he said, pointing out the red maples, sour gum trees, and highbush blueberries, "that the water table here is very high."
But his delight at finding the spring turned sour as he returned to Route 532 to find the crushed carcass of a Northern pine snake by the side of the road.
Crouching down next to it, he pulled out a cellphone to call Emile DeVito, the foundation's manager of science and conservation who has been tracking the snakes' migrations with radio telemetry. Juelg then wrapped the snake in a plastic bag to bring back for examination.
"There are all kinds of threats to the wildlife and vegetation," he said. "And they're not going away."
The preserve's three recent purchases were the culmination of nearly 20 years of negotiation with a family that had bought the land in the 1950s in expectation of a real estate boom that never happened.
Purchase price on the Woodland South property was $920,306, and was made with donations from the William Penn Foundation, the New Jersey Green Acres program, the Open Space Institute, and philanthropists Joan and Robert Rechnitz of Red Bank, Monmouth County.
It is the third-largest land purchase in the foundation's 56-year history."
The 473-acre Woodland North tract cost $418,142. The Pemberton Township property, at 811 acres, cost $708,439, according to the Conservation Foundation.
Asked what he would say to someone who questioned the value of natural, open spaces, Juelg paused for a moment and looked into the distance.
"If you already love the wilderness, you already understand.
"If you don't love wilderness, you need to explore it," he said. "And then you'll understand."