Pine Barrens Wetland Released from Farm Duty, Returns to Nature

CHATSWORTH, New Jersey, October 13, 2005 (ENS) - Once one of New Jersey's largest cranberry farms, a 14 square mile wetland in the heart of a UNESCO biosphere reserve is being restored to its natural state through the cooperation of a conservation foundation, the state, and $5.4 million from the federal government.

The Franklin Parker Preserve in Chatsworth, Burlington County lies in the heart of the Pine Barrens, also called the Pinelands, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The 1.1 million acres of undeveloped land in the nation's most densely populated state is the largest open space left on the mid-Atlantic Seaboard.

In 2004, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) purchased the 9,400 acre property, calling it "a rare ecological treasure for the East Coast of the United States."

The foundation says it was able to buy the $24 million piece of land at half price, adding that protecting a tract of land of this importance and magnitude is a "tremendous feat."

“The Franklin Parker Preserve contains some of the most beautiful wetlands in the Pine Barrens and provides critical habitat for more than 50 rare, threatened and endangered Pinelands species, including the unique Pine Barrens tree frog and other rare plants and wildlife,” said Michele Byers, NJCF executive director.

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Cranberry bog and canal on the Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pine Barrens (Photo courtesy Michael Hogan)
“The preserve also filters rainwater that feeds into the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, which is essential to protecting the pristine quality of 17 trillion gallons of underground water resources," Byers said.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a $5.4 million wetlands preservation and restoration project with the NJCF to restore the Franklin Parker Preserve to its natural state.

The preserve contains 1,100 acres of wetland agricultural fields and miles of canals and dikes. This water control system has transformed the natural wetlands into highly modified agricultural environments, which cannot revert to native wetland communities on their own. The altered water flow and compacted and leveled soil must first be repaired.

Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has purchased an easement on 2,200 acres of the preserve for $4.4 million. The easement forever protects the land for conservation purposes.

Within the easement area, the Natural Resources Conservation Service will fund the restoration costs for 1,100 acres of cranberry bogs, blueberry fields and wooded wetlands that have been altered by historic agricultural practices at a cost of an additional $1 million.

Canals will be plugged and dikes will be breached to allow the water table once again to fluctuate on a natural cycle. Native plants will recolonize from nearby habitats and germinate from seeds that have lain dormant for decades.

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Red-tail hawks, Buteo jamaicensis, like this one are found in the Franklin Parker Preserve. (Photo courtesy Fermilab)
In some cases, the land managers may augment natural revegetation. Current plans call for 150 acres of Atlantic White Cedar reforestation. An increasingly rare Pine Barrens plant community, less than 20 percent of historic Atlantic White Cedar forests remain. Natural cedar regeneration is unlikely due to poor germination and heavy deer browsing.

“Because the Franklin Parker Preserve lies in the heart of the Pine Barrens, known around the world for its ecological significance, NRCS recognizes the importance of maintaining a highly functioning and diverse wetland ecosystem here,” said Gary Mast, special assistant to the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“NRCS in New Jersey is pleased to be partnering with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in the preservation of this critical wetland area,” said Doug Zehner, acting NRCS state conservationist for New Jersey. “We look forward to working together over the next few years to see the restoration completed.”

The state of New Jersey will participate in management of the preserve. “These wetlands have tremendous ecological value,” said New Jersey DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell. “DEP is proud to play a role in their protection and restoration. The addition of federal resources to this important conservation partnership is good news for New Jersey.”

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The Pine Barrens treefrog, Hyla andersonii, is listed as threatened by the state of New Jersey. (Photo by John Bunnell courtesy New Jersey Pinelands Commission)
The property serves as a connector to tens of thousands of acres of public lands that are already protected, linking the state’s major holdings in the Pine Barrens region. The foundation has opened selected areas of the preserve to the public, although providing public access is not a requirement of Wetlands Reserve Program.

"We are very happy that together with NRCS and our partners statewide we have ensured that the property will be preserved for the benefit of generations to come,” said Byers.

In 1978 and 1979 Congress and the state of New Jersey passed legislation to protect the Pinelands and its unique natural resources. The Pinelands is managed under the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, administered by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission in cooperation with local, state and federal governments.

Thirty-nine species of mammals, 299 bird, 59 reptile and amphibian species and 91 fish species have been identified as occurring within the Pinelands. They include 44 animal species listed as threatened or endangered by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The state is further protecting and enhancing the Pinelands. On October 27, the New Jersey Department of Transportation will announce its designation of the Southern Pinelands Natural Heritage Trail as part of the state scenic byway program.