SOUTHAMPTON TWP., NJ (December 28, 2023) — The Open Space Institute (OSI) today celebrated the protection of more than 180 acres of an existing cranberry farm in Southampton Township, New Jersey. The project, led by New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJ Conservation) and supported by OSI, will preserve water quality and wetland habitat for critical species, and enhance local outdoor recreational opportunities.
Approximately 98 percent of the newly-protected property is wetland, while the remainder is upland forest. According to data from New Jersey’s Landscape Project, the land serves as habitat for endangered and special concern species like the Pine Barrens bluet, red-headed woodpecker, timber rattlesnake, northern parula, great blue heron, bald eagle, and barred owl.
OSI supported the project through its Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund (DRWPF), which is made possible by the William Penn Foundation. The DRWPF strategically protects land to ensure abundant, clean water within the Delaware River Watershed. Fifteen million people rely on the watershed for drinking water, including residents of the cities of Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and New York City.
“The Open Space Institute greatly appreciates NJ Conservation’s skilled work in protecting these cranberry bogs, wetlands, and forests which will allow nearly 200 acres to be reclaimed by native pinelands flora and fauna,” said Bill Rawlyk, OSI’s Mid-Atlantic Field Coordinator. “Conserving this land and native vegetation will ensure that rainfall will continue to recharge clean drinking water to the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. OSI celebrates NJ Conservation’s decades-long focus and leadership in protecting the New Jersey Pinelands.”
The farm, which dates back more than 90 years, was part of a property belonging to the Mehler family for generations and managed by the Rancocas Cranberry Company, which was also run by the family. Craig Mehler, the company’s current president, will retain 33 acres of the farm that includes active cranberry bogs. The company joined Ocean Spray as a cooperative in 1966 and continues to sell fruit to Ocean Spray.
Four generations of the Mehler family have maintained the property since 1933, starting with Craig’s great grandfather. In 1979, Craig’s father secured from Burlington County one of the first land conservation agreements in the state to protect the property from development.
“I’m happy to continue the legacy and see that my grandmother’s and my father’s hopes to protect the land in perpetuity are realized,” said Craig.
In addition to support from OSI, funding for NJ Conservation’s purchase of the land came from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Green Acres Program, , Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA), and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant. Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU) also contributed toward the costs associated with acquiring the property.
While NJ Conservation will own the property, the organization plans to partner with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance on managing the land and hosting outdoor education programs there.
“This property is truly a gem of the Pine Barrens, representing a history of conservation that we are proud to uphold,” said Stephanie Kreiser, NJ Conservation’s Director for South Jersey. “Continuing the Mehler family’s vision of preservation will not only protect valuable wildlife habitat and water quality in the area, but also enable the public to share in enjoying this special place.”
“Pinelands Adventures, an initiative of Pinelands Preservation Alliance, will use the property to provide guided trips to the public, so they can see the incredible beauty of the Pinelands while having a little fun,” said Jaclyn Rhoads, PPA’s Assistant Executive Director. “Connecting people to nature is critical to protecting the Pinelands. PPA appreciates the opportunity to partner with New Jersey Conservation Foundation, other organizations, and Green Acres in protecting and promoting the Rancocas property.”
The preserved property is located across from NJ Conservation’s 170-acre Evert Trail Preserve, and adjacent to Brendan Byrne State Forest. It also adjoins Blueberry Acres, a 205-acre property preserved by Trust for Public Land and transferred to NJ Conservation in 2021. One hundred percent of the land is within the headwaters of the South Branch Rancocas Creek, which flows through the property and supplies water to a reservoir on site.