In South Jersey, a haven from sprawl and bustle gains new appreciation

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The spring sun shimmers on dark streams, bronze pools, and silvery bogs.

Pause, and you may spot a native orchid known as a Pink Lady’s-Slipper rising from the soft, sandy earth of the forest floor.

Or you may hear a carpenter frog’s distinctive tap-tap-tap.

“This is a little island of pristine Pinelands surrounded by suburbia,” says my guide, John Volpa. “It’s not just a refuge for native plants and animals. It’s a refuge for people.”

Just off Kettle Run Road and not far from busy Route 73 in Marlton, the Black Run Preserve’s 1,300 acres are where unusual flora and fauna flourish and visitors can take a break from sprawl and briefly get away from it all.

“Evesham’s Gateway to the Pinelands. That’s our tagline,” declares Volpa, 63, a longtime Marlton resident and retired Shamong Township teacher who is founder and chairman of the 200-member Friends of the Black Run Preserve.

Purchased by Evesham Township in 2002, the preserve offers a dozen miles of trails through a quintessential Pinelands landscape of pitch pines, white cedar, mountain laurel, sphagnum moss, and bodies of water. Lots of water.

It’s a distinctive place that has survived and thrived in spite of development, illegal dumping, a catastrophic 2004 flood, and the presence or proximity of municipal sewage treatment facilities.

“It was abused for so long,” Volpa says. “And it’s such a treasure.”

A dozen years ago the preserve was simply “a cool place that didn’t have a name, was hardly used, and where some of those who did use it were abusing it,” notes Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

But state testing of the two streams that eventually inspired the Preserve’s name revealed that the water is pristine, meaning it helps “sustain the biodiversity that makes the Pinelands special,” he says.

“Pristine water keeps out invasive species and helps sustain the native and rare species that [provide] that characteristic Pine Barrens look and feel, The feel of a place you don’t find anywhere else on earth.”

An advocacy group for the entire 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, the alliance helped Volpa and his supporters “work to create an identity for the park, to see what had to be done to take care of it, and to get people to start going there,” Montgomery adds.

The Preserve is attracting an increasing number of visitors; an online map at has gotten 1,200 views, says Don Morrison, 40, of Marlton, a volunteer who deploys a drone he built himself to photograph, map, and collect data about the 11,000 phragmites plants on the site.

The invasive wetlands grass is proliferating on the bottom of a onetime sewage effluent detention pond; left to its own fecund devices, it will create a monoculture in which other plants can’t grow.

Morrison is among several hundred volunteers, including students, scouts, birders, herpetologists, and hiking enthusiasts, who are pitching in to help restore the ecosystem, as well as public access, within the Preserve.

Stockton University is studying the metamorphosis of the former cranberry bogs on the site. Service organizations such as the Marlton Rotary, businesses such as REI, and organizations such as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation have provided grants to help pay for infrastructure and other improvements, and local Eagle Scout candidates have cleared trails and built information kiosks.

The landscape “is very representative of the beauty of the Pinelands,” notes Amy Golden, an amateur photographer who lives in Voorhees and is on the Preserve’s board of trustees. “It’s always interesting. It’s always changing.”

A group of 40 Cherokee Regional High School seniors is planting 1,000 “plugs” of native grass. Some 200 volunteers built two miles of sustainable trails at the end of February. And from April 28 through 30, people will be needed to help plant a total of 1,500 native species inside the Preserve.

But probably no one knows the place — its geology, hydrology, history, and lore  — like Volpa, whose boyish enthusiasm is contagious.

“A bluebird! We have a bluebird,” he exclaims, pointing to a flutter of activity around one of the 40 snake-proof nesting boxes in the Preserve. “Oh  my God. That is too cool. That is fantastic!”

As I follow along, he picks up a piece of litter while talking about the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer beneath our feet, then segues into an observation about the lifestyles of indigenous reptiles, and  why “cedar” water has a golden hue (it’s not the trees, but the iron content of the water).

“This place belongs to the people, and I want to share the sense of peace it brings with everybody,” Volpa says. “I’m thinking about the future.”

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