When Philadelphia restaurateur Stew Keener visited Walden Pond in Massachusetts a few years ago, he found none of the contemplative wilderness of Thoreau’s infamous description. “It was a disaster,” he says, “full of hot dog stands and lifeguards.” But for many years, he had his own natural paradise: a 5,079 acre expanse of New Jersey’s southern Pine Barrens called Lenape Farms. “Whenever I came to Lenape Farms, I always thought, now here is my Walden,” he recalls.
Keener represents one of the thirteen families that privately owned the Estell Manor property for more than a century before transitioning it, in a historic deal on the last day of 2012, to the State of New Jersey for stewardship as a wildlife management and public recreation area. “It’s emotional but this preservation is a legacy that all of our fathers and grandfathers would be proud of,” he says.
The Nature Conservancy led protection efforts for Lenape Farms, bringing together the landowners, the State, The Pinelands Commission and Conservation Resources to conserve these lands. Barbara Brummer, New Jersey State Director, says, “It’s the largest protection project in our 58-year history in the state, and we are incredibly proud.”
Frank Burns, a long-time Lenape Farms board member and former president, shares his wistful accounts of good times spent on the land. “There was a lot of camaraderie,” says Burns, a Cape Atlantic Conservation District retiree. “I learned how to fish and shoot with my father and grandfather, and really got hooked on nature here.”
Though Burns felt bittersweet about turning over Lenape Farms, the rewards of knowing it’s protected for the future outweighed any sadness. “I am really happy that it is now open space in perpetuity,” he says. “The reason Lenape was established long ago was for enjoying the outdoors with friends, and it is rewarding to think we are continuing that tradition, in a way, with friends we won’t ever meet.”
Fellow board member Norm Quinn says that as a boy, “Lenape was truly a great adventure,” and that he relished exploring the property with his grandfather. He explains that as time passed, the ownership grew and relocated, and many could no longer spend enough time enjoying the land. It was time to find a better use for it.
“As we worked through options, conservation repeatedly came to the forefront,” says Quinn, president of a property tax consulting company in Wisconsin. “We wanted our decision to reflect the intent of the original founders.” The Conservancy guided the group through many challenges to make that happen.
“The Nature Conservancy has an excellent reputation for managing conservation opportunities on a large scale,” says Quinn. “They assembled a buyer and funding sources, and were a catalyst to overcoming obstacles to complete the transaction.”
Lenape Farms is one of the largest undeveloped natural areas in the state, lovingly stewarded for a century as a private retreat and award-winning tree farm. It now links together more than 56,000 acres of open space, creating a true haven for endangered species like the bald eagle, northern diamondback terrapin, and Pine Barrens tree frog.
If there is a message the former owners want to get across to the newly-visiting public, it is to continue safeguarding this land for future generations, and to be inspired. As Norm Quinn put it, “I’d like visitors to think, if thirteen people could create this amazing place, what could I do in my lifetime to make a difference?”
February 19, 2013