TOMS RIVER – Often referred to as the site of the Forked River Mountains, Ocean County officials are moving ahead with plans to purchase the almost 8,000 acre tract to insure it remains as open space.

“This acquisition, recommended by the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee, is the largest tract and one of the most environmentally sensitive that we have purchased since the county’s open space program first began in 1997,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little, in presenting the purchase at the Sept. 12 preboard meeting of the Board of Freeholders. “By adding this to what we have already preserved, Ocean County will have saved almost 30,000 acres of open space and farmland under its Natural Lands program.”

The 7,860-acre tract, which straddles Lacey and Ocean townships and is surrounded by publicly owned land, will be purchased for $15,450,000, which will be covered by revenues from the county’s dedicated open space tax. The property owner is John J. Brunetti of Old Bridge Township.

The Board of Freeholders has scheduled a public hearing on the purchase during its Sept. 19 meeting in the Ocean County Administration Building, here.

The site was identified by the Trust for Public Lands in their “Century Plan” and the 7,860 acre piece is the last significant tract left of the 21,000 acre Forked River Mountains Century Plan Site.

“The property is in a very environmentally sensitive and unique area of the County,” said Ocean County Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., who serves as liaison to the county’s open space program. “It is surrounded by thousands of acres of State, County and nonprofit preserved lands.

“It meets the many requirements of our open space program and insures this property will never be considered for anything but open space,” he said. “This purchase protects our watershed, it protects our endangered species. Its benefits are numerous.”

The property includes frontage on both sides of Lacey Road in Lacey Township and has access from old sand roads in both Lacey and Ocean townships. Of the total acreage, 1,602 acres is located in Ocean Township, while 6,258 is located in Lacey Township.

Little noted there are also opportunities that would create funding partnerships to help offset some of the acquisition costs.

Due to the large nature of this acquisition, Ocean County will seek public funding partnerships including with the Department of Defense and state Green Acres.

“In addition to protecting all the resources here, the property also provides opportunity for nature lovers to enjoy bird watching and nature walks, which also is important,” Little said.

Residents and visitors are known to enjoy the beauty offered by the Forked River Mountains, a set of hills near the Forked River.

“There are two mounts, side by side, with the western ridge at an elevation of 184 feet and the eastern ridge attaining 176 feet,” according to the TPL’s Century Plan. “While most northern New Jersey residents may laugh at such low elevations, here in the Pine Barrens such heights truly represent ‘mountains.’ ”

The “mountains” are referred to as the apex of the site.

The mountains are called a place of pure beauty, mystery, legend and history.

“On a clear day, from this site you can also see historic Navy Lakehurst’s Hangar One on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the lighthouse at Barnegat Light,” Little said.

Beautiful clear streams such as Factory Branch, the North, Middle and South branches of the Forked River, Oyster Creek, Cave Cabin Branch, Long Branch, Dennis Branch and Cold Branch flow through the region. There are also miles of pine oak and pitch pine lowland forests. The pristine landscape provides an array of habitat types for many rare, threatened and endangered plant and wildlife species.

A portion of the old Tuckerton Railroad line, which is currently owned by JCP&L also runs through the property.

“With all its amenities and its environmental significance, all the endangered species and the wildlife habitats, all the streams, this property is truly an asset to our open space program,” Bartlett said.

Once acquired, the County will develop a management plan for the property.

“We are pleased to place this last tract of the 21,000 acres into public ownership protecting it forever,” Little said. “This has significant benefits to all of our residents.”