Posted on February 5, 2024
LOWER TOWNSHIP — Access to hundreds of acres of a wildlife management area at the southern tip of New Jersey is expected to be closed until about December 2026 while a $37.5 million ecological restoration project gets underway.
Work is expected to begin in the Higbee Beach area by the end of the month. In the meantime, residents can learn more details of the Pond Creek Restoration Project at a public meeting planned for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Lower Township Municipal Hall, 2600 Bayshore Road in the Villas section.
Staff from the state Department of Environmental Protection will present an overview of the project and be available to respond to questions. Those unable to attend may email comments and questions to NJDEP-HBRemail@example.com, and there will be an option to attend remotely.
“We are excited to work together with other programs within DEP to restore this portion of Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area to maximize wildlife benefits and public access,” said Assistant Commissioner for Fish & Wildlife David Golden. “Once completed, the site will have a new trail network and multiple wildlife viewing platforms integrated into enhanced stopover habitat for migrating species. It will surely be one of New Jersey’s best wildlife viewing destinations.”
Best known outside the area as a onetime haven for nude sunbathing on its beach, thanks to a now-closed enforcement loophole, the 1,160-acre Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area includes extensive trails through dunes, woods and marsh, and is used by hunters, walkers, birders and many who want a quiet, tag-free beach in the summer.
The area stretches from the Cape May Canal to Sunset Beach and includes a freshwater lake, extensive salt marsh and a property that was once home to a facility that extracted magnesite from seawater, part of the steel making process seen as vital to national defense during World War II.
That plant closed decades ago, and after a time as an abandoned industrial site, was eventually demolished. Restoration of that area is part of the planned project, along with work to restore tidal flow in the marsh, hopefully without increasing the risk of flooding beyond the marsh.
The project area includes Davey’s Lake, a freshwater lake, and most of the Pond Creek Marsh, as well as the former Harbison-Walker magnesite plant, which also includes its own landfill.
State officials say the planned work will enhance habitat for wildlife.
“The Delaware Bayshore is a globally unique place, vital to migrations of shorebirds and raptors and home to an abundance of wildlife,” Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said in a statement. “The Pond Creek Restoration Project will restore a major section of the wildlife management area that was degraded many years ago by a magnesium-extraction plant.”
The main goal of the work is to re-establish tidal inundation to a large portion of Pond Creek Marsh without increasing flood risk to the upper watershed or inundating the eastern freshwater marsh area while allowing for habitat management of the northern marsh area, according to DEP officials.
To do so, the state plans to modify the inlet channel to allow sufficient tidal flushing, develop a network of additional channels to bring the tidal water into the interior of the marsh, excavate deep flood pools for fish habitat and create upland islands for shorebirds.
A.P. Construction of Philadelphia has the contract for the work.
An earthen berm will be constructed around much of the perimeter of the marsh, which will provide access to wildlife observation blinds and contribute to a trail system encircling the marsh.
The restored wetland project area will provide habitat for raptors, such as osprey, peregrine falcons, merlins, kestrels, cooper hawks and sharp-shinned hawks during their migratory season. It also will increase food, shelter and general habitat for numerous species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, officials said.
The project is funded with Natural Resource Damage funds and co-led by DEP’s Office of Natural Resource Restoration and Office of Coastal Engineering in partnership with Fish & Wildlife.