WOODLAND TOWNSHIP — When the New Jersey Conservation Foundation bought 9,400 acres of forest and wetlands in the heart of the Pinelands in 2003, it was the largest private land acquisition in New Jersey’s history.

Now the group is promoting its Franklin Parker Preserve as an unrivaled network of nature paths and observation platforms for the public’s enjoyment, having completed more than $1 million worth of work to restore the picturesque property.

http://www.njconservation.org/franklinparkerpreserve.htm">Click here for a link to Franklin Parker Preserve's website.

“We have this beautiful system of sand roads,” said Louis Cantafio, land steward for the NJCF, as he drove along the grid of earthen levees, “so it would be a shame if people didn’t come and see it.”

On Thursday, the group was awarded the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for its work returning the 1,100 acres of man-made bogs to natural wetlands, breaching the dams in some places so water could flow through, and planting Atlantic white cedars in others.

In a statement announcing the award on Thursday, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin also praised the group’s work, saying the land “will serve as high quality habitat and enhance water quality in the Mullica River watershed.”

The work is an example of private groups’ role in buying and maintaining open space while the Christie administration tries to find ways to pay for its own state parks, which cost $39 million a year to operate but only generate $8 million.

The Franklin Parker Preserve, named after the Pinelands Commission’s first chairman and a former NJCF president, is between massive tracts of public lands such as Wharton State Forest and Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.

“That property is really a hub for a couple hundred thousand acres right in the heart of the Pine Barrens,” said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. “It is a remarkable property.”

The land has been open to the public since the NJCF took control of the property, but the group is only now promoting it. In the meantime, they wanted to study the local flora and fauna and complete most of the restoration work.

Over the years, Cantafio said he’s seen equestrians, hikers, runners, hunters and at least one person in search of Bigfoot on the land.

The 14-square-mile tract was purchased in late 2003 from A.R. DeMarco Enterprises, a massive cranberry and blueberry operation, for $12 million.

The sale was hailed by environmentalists.

“It’s the Louisiana Purchase of New Jersey,” Michele Byers, executive director of the NJCF, said at the time.

Cranberry farmers were not as enthusiastic. The more than 800 acres of bogs that were no longer being harvested represented a more than 20 percent drop in the state’s total cranberry acreage.

But the loss to the cranberry industry was a gain in some ways for the public. The leftover agricultural infrastructure provides unique recreational opportunities.

The series of dikes surrounding the bogs provides paths through the wetlands filled with pristine water, lily pads and native grasses.

Since trees that have started returning to the bogs are no more than a few feet high, the view is unobstructed for hundreds of yards, if not miles, in some places.

The more than 20 miles of trails open to hikers, bikers, horse riders and cross country skiers also track up into surrounding upland forest, past overgrown blueberry bushes into the thick pines that make up Chatsworth village.

The Burlington County property is principally in Woodland Township, but has pieces in Tabernacle and Bass River townships. There are two main entrances; one is on Route 532 near Chatsworth Lake, and the other is on Route 563 just north of the Lee Brothers Cranberry Farm.

At each entrance, there are kiosks with maps of the property, and there are color-coded markers throughout the trails. There are several benches, two double-sized Adirondack chairs and two observational towers built on top of old pump houses used for irrigation.

A $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture also helped pay for planting more than 35,000 Atlantic white cedars and using heavy machinery to break up the farmland, allowing water to flow more freely and habitat to return naturally.

Extensive studies were also done to identify the rare and endangered plant and animal life that lives there, which includes Pine Barrens tree frogs, bald eagles, Northern pine snakes, barred owls, pink lady slipper orchids, Pine Barrens gentian and bog asphodel. One study also found a new species of cranefly.

As Cantafio traveled the sand roads in his van on Thursday morning, he came upon a marsh hawk, a bald eagle and a bevy of swans.

“They wouldn’t have been welcome here before,” he said of the swans, since they would dig up the cranberry vines while foraging.

He also said hello to a group of hikers from a local youth group, and four other people who he said are there often looking for rare mushrooms.

“Is that a new puppy?” he said as he rolled down his window to pet the dog that jumped up on his van door. “It’s not named after a fungus, is it?”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707