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From the Asbury Park Press


Dec. 17, 2009

2 big deals preserve 1,500 acres of Pinelands woods, swamp


When some hunters from Rumson and Fair Haven came here in 1946 to start the Year Round Sportsmen's Club, they paid a local man named Estlow $136 for 21 acres of remote pine woods and cedar swamp on the south side of the Forked River Mountains.

"They came out here, and he pointed to a pile of rocks and said, "That's your property corner,' " said club member George Downes of Mantoloking. In 1962, the hunters saw land speculators buy hundreds of acres around them, in expectation of a new city and jetport rising in the Pine Barrens, and then lose interest when the state Pinelands preservation plan took hold.

In recent weeks, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation closed a $2.7 million deal with the Interboro Holding Co. to buy those 617 acres around the hunting club, and that, along with Ocean County's acquisition of the Horner family farm off Route 532, expands the Forked River Mountain and Oyster Creek preserves by almost 1,500 acres.

"The largest unfragmented forest in the Pine Barrens is slowly being preserved," said Chris Jage, the conservation foundation's assistant director for South Jersey.
Fifteen years of on-and-off negotiations concluded this fall, after a rezoning by the state Pinelands Commission reduced development potential in the woods of western Lacey and Waretown. The state's Green Acres program allowed negotiators to offer the owners a sweeter deal — the same land value as under the previous rural zoning, Jage said.

In the 1960s, planners imagined building pedestrian malls, a shopping district and high-rise apartments there. Even after the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act, the region was not included in the most strictly regulated preservation area because there was little data on its wildlife habitat and rare and endangered species, said Michele S. Byers, the foundation director. Her nonprofit group now manages 4,000 acres there.

In the 1990s, the Forked River Mountain Coalition formed to seek preservation of the woods and swamps. The Year Round Sportsmen pitched in on the coalition's annual cleanups, helped the conservation foundation with its property searches and turned down offers from loggers for the valuable white cedars on their property.

Surprise land swap

Then, as the deal with Interboro approached, the hunters got a surprise: The land they'd bought from Estlow actually lay hundreds of feet east along the North Branch of the Forked River.

"Is that strange or what? When Interboro bought their property in 1962 at a tax sale, we were already there," Downes said. "When you look at these property tax maps, you see all these big parcels, and then these little 20-acre squares along the stream. Those were cedar allocations" bought and sold by old-time lumbermen, he said.

The conservation foundation offered the club a deal: the five acres they'd occupied since 1946 in exchange for the 21 acres. It's a good deal, Downes quipped: "We don't want to pay any more for taxes, because we get so much for our tax dollar back there."

Named for low gravel hills that reach elevations nearly 200 feet above sea level, the Forked River Mountains have a mysterious and romantic history of Revolutionary War guerrillas, moonshiners, loggers and vanished homesteads. It's the closest thing to true wilderness in Ocean County, said Byers, who credited the late historian Elizabeth Morgan of Lacey with getting conservation groups interested in preserving the region.

Driving visitors down sand roads in her Jeep Cherokee, Morgan "knew every intersection, she knew every tree. You could not get lost," Byers recalled. "And I've known a lot of people to get lost back there, including some of our staff."

Horner farm acquired

Around the same time, county Freeholder John C. Bartlett recalled, Dirk Van Ness got county officials interested in Wells Mills, an old sawmill pond on Oyster Creek and homestead of the local Estlow clan. A park and nature center were built there, and in the 1990s county voters approved a 1.2-cent surcharge on the county tax rate to buy natural lands, Bartlett said.

"It's a great program because we have great partners," Bartlett said at a Thursday news conference at Wells Mills.

The Interboro purchase was partly funded by the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust, which also this fall spent $8.1 million to acquire the 877-acre Horner property, adjacent to Wells Mills Park. Both projects also got contributions from the state Green Acres program and the Pinelands Commission conservation fund, which was funded by Conectiv (Atlantic City Electric) as mitigation for forest clearing during their southern Ocean County power line project several years ago.

Another $1 million came from a natural resource damage settlement that the state Department of Environmental Protection obtained from the chemical company Rohn and Haas over contamination at two 1950s dump sites off Route 72 near Chatsworth.



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