Rancocas Nature Center gets a three-month reprieve

Wading in the water, Jineva Tribbett (right) and others collect samples. "This is way better" than other trips, she said.
Wading in the water, Jineva Tribbett (right) and others collect samples. "This is way better" than other trips, she said.
Posted: January 02, 2013

The Rancocas Nature Center - which until a few days ago was slated to close New Year's Day - has been given a reprieve that Burlington County residents and officials hope will become permanent.

In a cost-cutting move, the New Jersey Audubon Society, which operates the 135-acre facility in Westampton Township near Mount Holly, announced last month that it would shut the 35-year-old center along with the Weis Ecology Center in Ringwood, Passaic County.

The group also said it would make its Nature Center of Cape May a seasonal facility by closing it to the public until April 15, 2013.

But after a "really positive" closed-door meeting with about 65 Audubon members at Rancocas Nature Center on Friday, the organization's officials said they would delay closing Rancocas until April 1.

Local officials and community volunteers now have three months to raise the $55,000 needed to keep the center open the rest of the year and create a sustainability plan, said Eric Stiles, president of the nonprofit nature and conservancy group, which has no affiliation with the National Audubon Society.

Stiles said the meeting was called because of feedback the organization received about the imminent closure, but said he and others are now "cautiously optimistic" that officials and volunteers can come up with the funds to keep the place open after a decline in school group visits there over the past year put it in the red.

With a $6 million annual operating budget, New Jersey Audubon last year served 90,000 visitors at its 11 facilities. About 75,000 people - including 40,000 children - sign up for programs offered by the group, such as its summer camp programs, hikes, and kayak tours, Stiles said.

Since school districts have been cutting field trips, such as those to Rancocas - mostly because of transportation costs - Audubon has begun formulating a plan to connect the center with students via the Internet through a curriculum called Eco-Schools, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Fund and the municipal eco-certification program Sustainable Jersey.

But others who call Rancocas a "hidden gem" and a "community asset" say they would like to see the Burlington County facility continue to connect residents with the natural world in a literal, rather than virtual, way. The site includes nature trails, gardens and ponds, a picnic area, museum, and small gift shop.

"I feel we need to do our level best to keep Rancocas Nature Center open as a viable entity," said Westampton Township Committeeman C. Andre Daniels. "It's been here a long time and it's been one of our best-kept little secrets . . . which has been the downside for the place, I think. The upside is that the threat of closure has called attention to one of the few pristine places left in South Jersey and I think that will motivate people to get involved."

Daniels said local officials plan to schedule talks with state and county agencies to "work as collaborative partners" to aid the center through increased marketing efforts and community involvement.

That's good news for Westampton residents such as Susan Knispel, a New Jersey Audubon member who attended Friday's meeting to voice concern about the closure.

"It happened so fast that they announced the closure, it really took a lot of people by surprise," Knispel said. "But I think the meeting was positive because it gave us all a chance to express our concern and our interest in doing something to save the nature center."

Knispel, who said she had enjoyed the nature center for the 25 years she had lived in Westampton and found it one of her favorite places to take her 11-year-old daughter, who also attends summer camp there, said she planned to organize community fund-raisers to help save it.

"We want to see what the local and county officials plan to do, but we're looking for others from the community to come forward to offer suggestions on how to help. . . . We only have three months to get this done."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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