Rejected by its 'parent,' a quirky South Jersey nature center thrives

Thanks largely to the passion of its supporters and the wisdom of its mission — and a principle that could be called survival of the quirkiest — the Rancocas Nature Center has endured for 40 years.

The agreeably rustic, 210-acre expanse of dense woods and lush meadows in the uplands along the Rancocas Creek in Westampton, Burlington County, “is a nature center with a little bit of everything,” says Harriet Rola, a volunteer at the 40th anniversary festivities. “I’m glad it’s still here.”

Dozens of people came and went over the course of Sunday afternoon. They swapped stories about a goat named Georgette, the organization’s early struggles (some locals feared “nature” meant “nudity”) and the near-death experience of 2012 when New Jersey Audubon, abruptly decided to cease managing the center after 35 years.

“It was terrifying,” recalls Toni Price, a Tabernacle Township beekeeper who is a leader of the center’s board. “We had a public meeting here, and the outrage was immense. But then the outrage became, ‘What can we do? And who’s going to do it?’”

Emerging from those painful days nearly five years ago was a stronger organization offering  programs attracting about 14,000 people annually. The nonprofit center is in the black, but fundraising remains a challenge.

The center has forged partnerships with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Burlington County Board of Freeholders and parks department, Westampton Township, a community of loyal constituents, and backers such as the Henry M. Rowan Family Foundation.

“Similar to many nonprofit organizations during the Great Recession, New Jersey Audubon had to make adjustments reflecting the new economy,” president and CEO Eric Stiles says in a statement that also described his organization as helping facilitate a “seamless transition” for the center.

“We appreciate this partnership that continues to connect people with the wildlife, habitat and water at Rancocas,” says Stiles.

Rancocas continues to provide “an enormous amount of programming,” says director Susan Buffalino.  She’s not exaggerating: The fall schedule offers page after page of activities, including guided hikes, a photography club, and “Yoga With Mother Nature.”


Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Burlington County County park ranger Kathy Ragauckus (center) speaks with visitors as the Rancocas Nature Center celebrated its 40th anniversary Sunday. The Burlington County facility has been managed by a nonprofit that fought to survive after NJ Audubon stepped back in 2012..

She notes that the mission has always been to educate and encourage the public, particularly children, to experience and steward the natural world. “The center is — what’s the word I’m looking for? —  kind of simple,” Buffalino, of Moorestown, adds.

Little high-tech razzmatazz and no corporate come-ons intrude into the bucolic atmosphere of the center, which leases its site from the adjacent Rancocas State Park. Gardens of native plants, plots of milkweed offering a “way station” for monarch butterflies, and a well-maintained trail system highlight a verdant landscape just a mile or so east of I-295.

“The reason it has survived is that it’s such an asset,” says Anna Kitces, a retired biologist from Yardley who was among the first staff members hired at the center in the mid-1970s. “I designed the first trail here.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Tony Tezla of Medford hands his cellphone over to son Christopher, 4, so he can photograph a frog in the dragonfly pond as the Rancocas Nature Center celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Inside the homespun, mid-19th century farmhouse that serves as the center’s headquarters, walls are decorated with the work of local artists and artisans. There’s a modest bookstore and equally modest museum, a mini-menagerie of taxidermy — mostly bird specimens, some believed to be a century old  — on display, plus a turtle and a wood snake who are very much alive.

There’s also Ranger Kathy, whose last name is Ragauckus. It rhymes with ‘Secaucus,’ but kids (and adults like me) glance at her badge and think it’s some variation on Rancocas.

“So when I lead hikes I say, ‘follow the Rancocas,’” says Ragauckus, a jovial, six-foot-tall Burlington County Parks ranger assigned to the center.

Like many of the people I meet Sunday, she’s adopted the place. “I took it upon myself to start to make the park more visible from Rancocas Road,” she says.

“I want the public to come see this. We have a unique blending of nature, and the trails, and also the history. We have ties to the Revolutionary War. And right next door to us is Timbuctoo.”

Rancocas Nature Center

For decades, Mary Weston, her son, Guy, and other volunteers have worked to research, preserve and teach about Timbuctoo, an early 19th-century settlement of free black people near the Rancocas in Westampton Township.

“We have a common interest in the history and archaeology of the area … [and] we’ve discussed common research projects,” says Guy, who gave a presentation during Sunday’s event.

Circulating through the party and embracing well-wishers were Karl Anderson and Liz Anderson. Long divorced, they were the center’s founding family.

They worked for New Jersey Audubon and were raising three three children when they were assigned to oversee the center in 1977. They traveled in a VW bug and the kids slept in the back (ah, the ‘70s).

“It was hard in the beginning. The house was a total disaster; I was afraid the upstairs bathtub would come through the ceiling,” says Karl, 80, of Woodbury.

“But I was up for anything.  Somebody gave us a goat named Georgette, who had two kids and ended up standing on the roof of a car. Somebody else gave us some chickens. I thought it would be nice, having sort of a farm atmosphere,” he adds.

“Someone gave us a parrot, and it had a … ‘distress call’ you can’t put in the paper, says Liz, 83, of  Medford.

Although animal stories, such as one about squirrels that’s also off the record, are entertaining and memorable, Liz points out that the relationships the center has built over the years with the community “are what made it such a marvelous, marvelous place.”

It still is.