By Michele S. Byers
Just in time for the holidays, the state of New Jersey announced plans to permanently preserve the nearly 1,400-acre “Holly Farm” property in Millville and Maurice River Township, Cumberland County.
Protecting this beautiful landscape is the best possible gift to the many rare plants and animals that inhabit the ecologically-sensitive area between the Menantico Creek and Manumuskin River, tributaries of the Maurice River. And a wonderful gift to the citizens of New Jersey.
Despite its name, the Holly Farm isn’t a farm at all. The property is named for an old holly orchard on site, but most of the land is natural forest that’s part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Pine Barrens tree frogs, barred owls, red-headed woodpeckers, Cooper’s hawks, dotted skipper butterflies, and pine, scarlet and corn snakes all live at the Holly Farm. It’s a nesting and forage area for 71 breeding birds and nine migratory birds, including bald eagles, least terns and ospreys.
Until now, the Holly Farm has been vulnerable to development because it’s located just outside the million-acre region protected by the state’s Pinelands legislation and master plan.
According to a 1988 conservation plan for the Manumuskin River watershed by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, “the one-acre residential zoning in Millville would pose a threat, were it not for Atlantic City Electric’s plans to hold virtually all of this area for potential development far into the future.” But “far into the future” quickly became the present.
Over the last 30-plus years, local citizens and conservationists all over New Jersey fought a long parade of development proposals on the Holly Farm and adjacent lands.
In 1986, the state’s Hazardous Waste Siting Commission proposed a toxic waste “entombment” facility. A local group, Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries, hired environmental consultants and found that the site was chock full of rare and endangered species, as well as critical foraging habitat for what was, at the time, the last bald eagle nest in New Jersey. The toxic waste idea was dropped.
But the victory didn’t last long. A short time later, a storage site for low-level radioactive waste was proposed. This prompted Citizens United to seek federal “Wild & Scenic” designation for the Maurice River and its tributaries, a goal that was successfully achieved. But the Wild & Scenic designation couldn’t protect all lands between the two waterways.
Sand mining and industrial uses on Route 55 were proposed, and successfully blocked in court by environmental groups. In 1995, The Nature Conservancy acquired more than 3,200 acres, now known as the Manumuskin River.
But the Holly Farm – not yet preserved – was proposed for a coal-fired power generating plant. Because of the site’s ecologic value, conservationists pushed for its purchase by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program.
The preservation effort ended up entangled in years of litigation, with additional development proposals for senior housing and a golf course. A turf farm that would also host soccer was a more recent proposal.
The Holly Farm became the last missing piece of the puzzle in the landscape of preserved lands. Now it will become the connector between the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area, the Manumuskin River Preserve, Menantico Creek Preserve and Peaslee Wildlife Management Area.
Altogether, the preserved lands in the watershed of the Menantico Creek and Manumuskin River will add up to over 10,000 acres.
In announcing the land purchase, Governor Phil Murphy stated that preserving the Holly Farm property will also help protect against the impacts of climate change because it has “the capacity to store large amounts of carbon emissions” and absorb water during storms.
Kudos to Murphy, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, Atlantic City Electric, Citizens United and everyone else who was part of this long-term protection effort.
Thomas Wells, author of the 1988 study and now policy director for the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy, advocated for the permanent preservation of these lands for more than 30 years.
“We dedicate this report to the many local citizens and government officials who are fighting a constant battle to preserve the resources of the Manumuskin, now and for future generations,” wrote Tom in the 1988 study.
What a legacy for New Jersey and its citizens.
This season really will be “happy holly-days” for the area’s rare plants and animals and all New Jerseyans.
For more information on the preservation announcement, go to the governor’s website at https://nj.gov/governor/news/news/562019/approved/20191125a.shtml.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.