Months after the cleanup got underway, though, the refuge has made a strong comeback.
Wildlife and visitors have returned and Wildlife Drive is open even as workers continue cleaning up the storm's mess in marsh areas not usually frequented by visitors.
The federal government provided nearly $4 million for the current work, mainly along Barnegat Bay, which began Nov. 7 and will continue into the spring.
About $162 million was set aside last month by the U.S. Department of the Interior to restore wetlands, beaches, marshes, and shorelines, and to prepare Atlantic Coast communities for future storms.
The money will be used for 45 revitalization and research projects from North Carolina to New England; about $15 million has been directed to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
Altogether, about a half-billion dollars has been appropriated by the Interior Department since last year to clean up and rebuild the coastline.
"Forsythe refuge's marshes buffered inland areas from the full brunt" of Sandy, refuge manager Virginia Rettig said. "Nature is our best defense against future storms, and we will clean and restore this vibrant and resilient stretch of coast to sustain wildlife and protect the people of New Jersey in the future."
Work is now being performed by Coastal Environmental Group Inc., which has been involved in the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina and the remediation of Superfund sites. The company has also removed debris left behind by Sandy on Fire Island, N.Y.
"We're making excellent progress," said Donald Freiday, the refuge's visitor services manager. "We're starting to feel better about the condition of the refuge.
"The public visitation areas are in good shape," he said. "People are seeing migrating ducks, geese, and eagles."
The work started in Brick, Stafford and Eagleswood Townships, where the most of the debris is, officials said.
"The [marshy] areas that were affected are hard to access," Freiday said. "Contractors bring in large barges and specialized tracked vehicles.
"Some of the work is done by hand with crews of men," he said. "Other parts of it is done with equipment loaders."
The workers are removing refuse from the Reedy Creek area of Brick, where they've found aluminum sheds, mailboxes, shingles, siding, docking piers, boardwalk material, even the roof of a house. Tons of material have been hauled away.
"We're in our second full week of work," said Clay Stern, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who focuses on environmental contaminants. "The guys are doing a great job in a difficult environment.
"They're dealing with unstable footing and doing a lot by hand, picking up wood with big, nasty, rusty nails," he said.
The debris is transferred to small barges, then to larger ones before being trucked to a landfill, Stern said.
Sandy sent a wall of trash-filled water from the barrier islands into the refuge, where it was sifted by the trees, then dropped as the water receded.
In Stafford Township, Ocean County, a 1,000-gallon tank containing 700 gallons of gasoline was discovered and removed. "We don't know where it came from; nobody claimed it," Stern said.
The Forsythe refuge ordinarily has about 250,000 visitors a year, but the number was cut by a third over the last year because of the havoc wrought by Sandy.
Many use Wildlife Drive, the refuge's main road; others frequent Holgate, a fishing destination in Long Beach Township; the DeCamp Wildlife Trail in Brick Township; and the Barnegat Observation Platform in Barnegat.
Wildlife Drive, running atop a dike in Galloway Township, Atlantic County, was repaired by April with $1.4 million from the Federal Highway Administration. About 100,000 people use the gravel and dirt drive every year. That number was slashed - also by a third - over the last year.
Scores of derelict boats, tanks, and drums were found along the drive. "It was very disheartening," Harper of the Friends of Forsythe said. "The breaches [in the drive] were so huge that it didn't look like they could be fixed in any reasonable time."
Within no more than 10 days of the storm, though, the recovery was well underway. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and other workers and volunteers secured the refuge headquarters and visitors center in Oceanville, restoring computer and phone service, before turning to assess other damage.
Federal funding for road repairs was obtained and 2,000 truckloads of clean fill was brought in to plug the massive breaches.
"That gave us hope," Harper said. "We could all feel like we were getting back to normal."
The timing of the restoration effort has been important. "There's less disturbance to the wildlife now, and the trash and debris is more visible because there's been a lot of vegetation dieback," Freiday said.
Visitors - birders, hikers, photographers, bikers - were dismayed when they saw the damage, Harper said.
But the tide has turned, from Absecon to Brick. "It's a great comeback story for people being able to use public lands," she said.