TOMS RIVER – It’s official. The acquisition of Ocean County’s largest open space purchase since the county’s open space program first began in 1997 is complete.

“I am pleased to announce that we closed this week on the purchase of the almost 8,000 acre tract in Lacey and Ocean Townships that is home of the Forked River Mountains,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines, who serves as liaison to the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund. “This is not only our largest tract to acquire under this program but also one of the most environmentally sensitive purchases we have made under our open space program.”

The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the purchase at its Sept. 19, 2018 meeting at the recommendation of the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee.

“This environmental gem will now be preserved in its natural state forever,” Haines said.

The 7,923-acre tract, which straddles Lacey and Ocean townships and is surrounded by publicly owned land, was purchased for $15,450,000, which is covered by revenues from the county’s dedicated open space tax. The property was purchased from Castleton Associates LLC, formerly the Brunetti Corporation of Old Bridge Township.

The site was identified by the Trust for Public Lands in their “Century Plan” and the 7,923 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,” Haines said. “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,” she 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.

Haines noted the County is reviewing 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,” Haines 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,” Haines said.

Beautiful clear streams such as headwaters of the Oswego River, the 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.

“The entire Board of Freeholders is pleased we were able to place the last tract of the 21,000 acres into public ownership, protecting it forever,” Haines said.