LACEY – More than 3,100 acres of pine forest was donated to Ocean County by the Nature Conservancy to expand the protected Forked River Mountain Wilderness Area.
Although county leaders agreed to accept the gift in 2019, transactions are now complete, officials said. With the land came a maintenance endowment of more than $112,000 from the Conservancy.
“Ocean County has a great parks program, and we are certain they will be excellent stewards of this land for people and wildlife. The site is easy to find and provides access to the Pine Barrens for people who previously may have been hesitant to visit this ecological treasure in our state,” said Eric Olsen, director conservation programs for TNC’s New Jersey chapter.
The land had been given to the Nature Conservancy by Stephan Leone, a Toms River lawyer and businessman, more than a decade ago, the Conservancy said. It is adjacent to an 8,000-acre parcel of open space already owned by the county, purchased in 2019 for $15 million. Together, they create an 11,100-acre preserve.
County Commissioners said that the land will remain in a natural state, open to the public for such passive recreation as hiking or birdwatching.
“This donation is not only adjacent to the largest tract we have acquired under the county’s open space program but it is also one of the most environmentally sensitive tracts we have purchased under our Natural Lands Trust Program,” said Ocean County Commissioner Virginia E. Haines. “This type of land preservation is what the open space program is all about.”
“On behalf of the Board of Commissioners, I extend our deepest appreciation for this donation from The Nature Conservancy and Stephan Leone,” she added. “This parcel mirrors the environmental qualities of the Forked River Mountain tract and is a perfect fit for our open space program since it is surrounded by land already preserved by Ocean County and the state. Our residents and visitors will always be able to enjoy this environmental gem.”