Before the COVID-19 pandemic threw ordinary life into chaos in March, Evesham Township’s Black Run Preserve (BRP) had already welcomed 3,000 visitors in the beginning of 2020 alone.
And as statewide shutdowns demonstrated the need to slow the virus’ spread, nature lovers demonstrated the importance of the BRP as a refuge, even as limitations gradually restricted passive recreation allowed on site.
The township limited the number of people allowed to hike BRP’s trails, strictly enforced social-distancing rules and encouraged visits to last no more than an hour. Nonetheless, the preserve still welcomed a steady stream of guests.
“March 13 was the week the national emergency was declared; on the 14th and the 15th, 500 visitors a day were counted — and that’s just what our ambassadors saw,” confirmed John Volpa, the preserve’s founder and chair.
Marlton’s own slice of the wholly unique Pine Barrens ecosystem has been serving as a gateway to the pines since the early 2000s, which is fitting since the township is 75 percent pinelands. BRP grows in popularity as volunteers, ambassadors, the nonprofit organization Friends of the Black Run Preserve and Volpa continue to advocate for the preserve and the work it does.
During a township council meeting May 5, Volpa discussed the BRP’s vibrant environment, its past as land cherished and protected by Evesham’s founding families centuries ago, current plans and future goals. It was at that meeting that Volpa’s tireless, ongoing efforts to ensure BRP’s place as a protected community gem were honored with a Power of One award.
“John loves Black Run with his whole heart, and it shows,” Mayor Jaclyn Veasy said.
But Volpa is quick to credit the volunteers and champions who have helped BRP find its place as a cornerstone of natural beauty amid a suburban landscape.
The growing popularity and ongoing success of BRP is, according to Volpa, a true team effort. He cites early supporters like former Township Manager Tom Czerniecki and former Councilman Joe Howarth as the crucial first step in elevating BRP’s mission.
“The large bridge at Kettle Run East created accessibility to that side, rather than a bridge with just a wooden plank instead, which is what was there before,” Volpa said. “That bridge should have their name on it. It should be Tom and Joe’s Bridge.”
Volpa praised the more recent support from Director of Community Development Nancy Jamanow and Superintendent of Public Works Tom Kohl as “just wonderful,” and he applauds the enthusiasm of current ambassadors like DeMasi Middle School teacher Maureen Heegan, “one of our biggest advocates.”
In 2008, Heegan lost her 23-year-old son Matthew, an environmental major at Stockton University. She saw getting involved in BRP and encouraging the next generation to love the Earth as a way to honor her son and keep his passion for ecology going.
“I fell in love with Black Run and the Pinelands, but it was also such a good group of people to be around,” she said.
Heegan sees her role as an ambassador to the BRP as an opportunity to help Evesham Township School District’s youth develop an early appreciation for the environment in general and the preserve specifically.
“From the beginning, the Evesham School District has been so supportive of working with Black Run — and involved,” she said. “We have a responsibility to take care of our Earth, and to teach students ways they can make a difference. We’ll take them out there to do real science, like controlling invasive species or being paleontologists looking for evidence of life from when the Pine Barrens were under the ocean. And they get so excited about it.”
Marlton’s younger residents have also had a significant role in protecting and improving BRP, as numerous Eagle Scout and school-directed projects have zeroed in on ways to help the preserve, from building nest boxes that help monitor BRP’s avian residents and cleaning up its hiking trails, to empowering students so they can become junior ambassadors themselves.
The Friends of Black Run Preserve, founded in 2012, provide additional funding to supplement the preserve’s annual operating budget while promoting its mission and seeking new members. The group is also a hands-on force continually working to improve the physical features of the BRP.
“The Friends are the official stewards of the land,” Volpa said. “With some help from Eagle Scouts, we are the ones who have installed every piece of infrastructure and signage, kiosks, information on the kiosks, log circles, small bridges, new trails, blazes. Anything positive that you see that’s been done has been done by the Friends.”
Volpa and the BRP rely on that same civic-minded dedication for the preserve’s next chapter, as he said “there is so much left to be done” that requires more hands on deck.
“Unless we start getting a lot more support from the local community as far as memberships and donations, it doesn’t move forward,” Volpa added. “We’re essentially all volunteers; we don’t have a huge budget. We just really need to get the word out there that this is something that’s important for the community: It raises property values, it brings in business.”
BRP still falls under the auspices of both the township and the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, as Evesham has owned the open space where BRP sits since 2000 and the commission is an independent state agency focused on preserving and protecting South Jersey’s entire 938,000-acre Pinelands area. (The Pine Barrens themselves account for 1.1 million acres of land; BRP occupies 1,300 of those acres).
As a regulatory body, the commission has the final say on anticipated projects like the Peace Bridge; four formalized parking lots rather than the trailheads serving as unofficial parking; and certification of all existing trails, footbridges, catwalks and structures. Township officials must take their cues from the Pinelands Commission, though Volpa says the current administration has helpfully advanced BRP’s image as a significant resource that brings added value to Marlton.
“Anything that’s considered an improvement can’t be performed unless it’s approved by the Pinelands Commission,” Volpa explained — and the pandemic has thrown a considerable wrench in advancing BRP’s goals.
With ambassadors leading more than 40 events last year that drew nearly 700 attendees, even more programs are among the preserve’s post-pandemic plans. Photography outings, yoga classes and full-moon hikes are all on the projected roster, while the events and outreach committee has socials and 5Ks on the horizon.
There are hands-on projects in the works, too, like the master map of BRP Volpa had originally envisioned as being completed by the end of March. The Peace Bridge is a significant project both in terms of safety and accessibility, too: It will provide safe access for hikers wishing to visit the preserve’s west side, once it’s fully funded and social distancing guidelines are relaxed enough to allow volunteers to work together.
Even in a holding pattern, Volpa remains optimistic about the preserve’s mission and future. Given the township’s origins as a Quaker settlement, he takes inspiration from those peaceful beginnings in his vision for BRP’s role in the community.
“Everyone’s welcome, and that’s what we’re trying to do at Black Run, to create a culture of peace in that everyone who comes here should feel welcome and respected,” Volpa said. “Maybe you’ll see someone who looks a little different from you on the trails — just say hi, give them a wave and a smile, and go in peace, live and let live. We want to create a sense of respect for not only the land but for each other.”