Former 'antichrist of the Pinelands' is now a patron of preservation

Natalie DeVito, 10, bikes at the Franklin Parker Preserve, encompassing 15 square miles in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. A former cranberry farm, the property was purchased by New Jersey Conservation Foundation in 2003 after the owner decided he wanted it to be protected forever as a nature preserve. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Natalie DeVito, 10, bikes at the Franklin Parker Preserve, encompassing 15 square miles in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. A former cranberry farm, the property was purchased by New Jersey Conservation Foundation in 2003 after the owner decided he wanted it to be protected forever as a nature preserve. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2014

Three times a week Lee Yeash of Lumberton puts her black Lab, Rookie, in the car and drives to a dirt road in the Pinelands of Atlantic County.

Blocked by two metal gates and a sign that reads, "No Unauthorized Access," the road into the Franklin Parker Preserve might seem uninviting.

But hikers are welcome, and beyond those gates lies a vast and nearly pristine expanse of woods and sunlit lakes and meadows rippling these days with switchgrass and sedge, wild blueberries, redroot plants, leatherleaf bushes, jack pines, and white cedars that 20 years ago was cratered with cranberry bogs.

"You don't think of time here," Yeash, a wildlife naturalist, marveled at the end of a recent four-mile walk through the 9,770-acre preserve.

"It's just beauty," she exclaimed. "Each season is totally different."

This was music to the ears of a stocky, white-haired man nearby, leaning on a cane by his white Cadillac Escalade.

"Such appreciation. I'm delighted," said 75-year-old Garfield DeMarco.

Yeash, 52, did not know him. But as she approached, the former cranberry tycoon once dubbed "the antichrist of the Pinelands" held out his hand.

"When I die," he told her, "I'll be glad to know I made the right decision."

Yeash soon learned that DeMarco, once the nation's third-largest cranberry farmer and longtime Republican boss of Burlington County, created the 15-square-mile preserve from land he and his father had farmed for more than six decades.

A decade ago he sold his 9,400 acres, valued at $24 million, to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation for $12 million so that it might return to wilderness.

"I'd give you a hug, but I smell of blueberries," said Yeash, who had sampled some wild berries on her walk.

DeMarco laughed. "Nothing wrong with that," he told her. "Enjoy. Enjoy."

As Yeash and Rookie headed back to her car, DeMarco and his longtime companion, Billy Wilson, drove slowly along a rutted path toward a distant observation deck.

"I hope nobody notices you in all this conservation driving this big gas guzzler," joked Wilson, 49.

DeMarco seemed unconcerned and pointed out the rough-hewn reservoir his late father, Anthony, created decades ago to flood the bogs at harvest time, floating ripe berries off the bushes.

"I was a little kid when my dad made this little strip of bog," DeMarco recalled. "This was his first big project, draining this off."

An honors graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, he assumed operation of the farm after his father was killed by a drunken driver on New Year's Eve 1964.

"Here I am, 26 years old, taking over this business," he recalled with a shake of his head. "Talk about being thrown in the water to swim. But I said [to his brother and sister] if we make a go of this, we'll all be well-rewarded."

In the decades that followed he increased A.R. DeMarco Enterprises Inc. from 3,500 acres to nearly 10,000, and expanded annual production from 25,000 crates to 160,000. "I really enjoyed it," he said.

The sight of lily pads reminded him of how swans used to "pull the roots out" from under the pads, which got him reminiscing about the time, as a boy, when "an old Piney gave me a swan sandwich."

"It was not bad," he recalled. "Kinda tough."

The same could be said of DeMarco.

When conservation groups began advocating for creation of the Pinelands National Reserve in the 1970s, DeMarco fought back with such fury that environmentalists long viewed him as the  bete  noire   of Pinelands protection, Carleton Montgomery, director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, recalled last week.

DeMarco still defends his early efforts to block the reserve's creation. "When you have that, everything goes. Farms go. Houses go. Towns go. We would have turned into a ward of the state."

It was a losing battle. In 1978, Congress created the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, the first in the nation. But by then DeMarco's political acumen had won him chairmanship of the Burlington County Republican Party in 1974, a job he held until 1990.

So skillful was he as a party boss - Republicans held nearly every county office by the time he stepped down in 1990 - that county politicos used to refer to him as "God."

And when the Department of Environmental Protection charged him in 2000 with destroying 22 acres of protected wetlands to create a new bog, he earned a new moniker.

"The antichrist of the Pinelands," Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, called him.

DeMarco said he "just laughed" when he heard the epithet and insisted he had been within his rights to create the disputed bog - the wetland regulations were "ambiguous," he said, and the charges against him were "pure politics."

He might still be remembered as the greatest wetlands violator in state history - he paid a $400,000 fine - were it not for the Parker Preserve. DeMarco calls it "one of my proudest achievements."

Such has been his rehabilitation that Democratic Freeholder Joanne Schwartz has proposed him as Burlington County's next appointment to the Pinelands Commission.

Although the tract DeMarco created is named for Franklin Parker, first chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in October named a section of the preserve near Chatsworth Lake for the DeMarco family.

Much of the foundation's efforts during the last 10 years has been devoted to undoing the impact of cranberry farming on the preserve's natural habitat, said the foundation's chief biologist, Emile DeVito. Since 2008, foundation volunteers have planted more than 25,000 Atlantic white cedars native to the Pinelands.

"We don't really know what it looked like" before the DeMarco family began farming, said DeVito as he strolled the tract searching for Northern Pine snakes. But by plugging up holes in former dikes, and turning over the soil to expose long- and deep-buried plant seeds, "we can create a really nice habitat."

Seeing the scene of his decades of labor being returned from bog to wild meadow and wetland does not distress DeMarco, he said.

The land "always had an air of mystery when I was a boy," he said. "You could feel the ghosts of the past - the ancestors. There was something awe-inspiring."

Despite his "deep roots" in both Atlantic and Burlington Counties, DeMarco said, "I've always considered myself a citizen of the Pinelands."


doreilly@phillynews.com

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