Pineway proposal touted as boom to Barrens economy

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Friday, January 31, 2003

Pineway proposal touted as boom to Barrens economy

By LAWRENCE HAJNA
Courier-Post Staff


It's being called a Pineway, a scenic byway that will take motorists past some of the Pinelands' most picturesque features.

Places like the Mullica River, as it sweeps out of dark green pine forests into Great Bay.

And the Great Egg Harbor River, as it rushes past the stone ruins of Weymouth Furnace in Atlantic County.

Designed to foster appreciation of the ecologically and culturally unique region, the 122-mile-long Pineway - a designated scenic route using existing roads - is expected to serve another important function: Bring tourist dollars to the Pinelands.

Local officials and business owners have long complained that state development regulations that preserved the Pinelands have hurt the local economy.

Barry Horas says regulations prevent him from expanding his Blueberry Hill Campground in little Port Republic along the eastern edge of the Pinelands National Reserve.

"Anyone that doesn't pay attention to the environment is a fool," he said as I road-tested the byway Wednesday. "But the bureaucracy gets in its own way. There's just layer upon layer of agencies, which just duplicate expenses."

But many of these areas are simply out of the way, places that time has forgotten, as Brett Noll put it. He lives in Hamilton, near Route 322 where motels, restaurants and gas ADVERTISEMENT - CLICK TO ENLARGE OR VISIT WEBSITE

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stations gradually died after the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in 1964.

"There's a lot of small businesses around here that have had a hard time. It's kind of like a dead zone between Philly and Atlantic City," said Noll.

Noll, 21, lives with his father in a three-room cabin with a bedroom loft that overlooks Weymouth Furnace, site of an early 19th-century forge that later became a paper mill.

His cabin resembles a fairy-tale hunter's lodge. Its exterior is decorated in slate shingles and cedar panels. Fake flowers cascade from soffits; eaves are trimmed with gnarled "driftwood" pulled from nearby Makepeace Lake.

The pleasant smell of wood smoke hangs inside the cabin as do numerous animal trophy heads - a deer, an elk, a bighorn sheep, even a bull's head.

The Pinelands Commission is coordinating the byway effort. The byway won't make it any easier for businesses to get approvals from the commission, which controls development in the 1.1 million-acre reserve.

The idea, however, is that some folks, while visiting casinos or camping in the area, may decide to use the route to tour the Pinelands - and spend a little of their money at craft stores, sandwich shops and taverns along the way.

Imagine the growth possibilities. Bed and breakfasts and hotels with names like the Cranberry Inn and the Pitch Pine Plaza popping up along the edges of blueberry fields.

And little shops that sell trinkets. For the kids, rubber Pine Barrens tree frogs that squonk when you squeeze them. For mom and dad, bobbleheads of Brendan Byrne, the architect of the national reserve, and Jim Florio, the commission's chairman.

OK, so this is a stretch. But the byway is an idea that is long overdue.

It's only a concept right now; there are no signs to help you follow it. But, I took a shot, following a blurry map and less-than-specific set of directions the commission faxed me.

I did surprisingly well. I didn't get seriously lost and probably only strayed from the route a few times.

My starting point: Batsto, the restored iron forge in southern Wharton State Forest. There I met Kathy Minnick, who runs the state-owned gift shop at the visitor center.

It's one of the few places where one can find Pinelands souvenirs. She sells books about the history and ecology of the Pinelands, Batsto Christmas ornaments, Jersey Devil T- shirts, even hand-lacquered walking sticks adorned with portraits of Joseph Wharton, the 19th-century Pine Barrens land baron.

She spends the week living in Sweetwater, along the Mullica River, near work. On weekends, she comes home to Maple Shade.

Snow fell lightly as I arrived at Batsto; as far as I could tell, I was one of maybe two or three visitors. Minnick's eyes lit up when I told her about the Pineway.

"I think it will enhance, or invite more people to this area. They'll go, `Oh, I didn't know Batsto was there. Let' s go visit that.'"

The Pinelands Commission is canvassing counties and municipalities to see if they want to be included in the National Scenic Byway, a federal program administered by the state Department of Transportation.

So far, 11 of 16 municipalities along the route have adopted resolutions supporting the idea. Cape May and Cumberland counties have done likewise; the commission is still waiting to hear from Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties.

Once the road is designated, local governments will be be eligible for DOT grants for signs, scenic turnouts and other improvements to enhance the experience of driving the route.

Horas, whose campground is on remote Clarks Landing Road, figures a Pineway could help business. "People might see my sign as they're traveling through, and say, `Next time we go camping, let's give them a call.'"

Port Republic has not adopted a supporting resolution yet. But Clarence Hanselman, a councilman who happened to be visiting Horas when I stopped by, doesn't expect any problems.

"It'll give some people a place to take a drive on a Sunday afternoon, or something like that," he said.

The route is like a big shoelace. It has a giant northern loop that wraps around the Mullica River east of Batsto, and a southern loop northeast of the Delaware Bay.

In the middle is a long stretch that follows state Route 50. It's somewhat tedious but necessary to hold the two loops together.

The byway passes tea-colored streams fed by pretty little wetlands, and along vast brackish meadows flanked by brown grasses, dormant for the winter.

It also goes by boarded up restaurants, abandoned gas stations, crumbling houses - relics of the region's past.

But what's most striking about the route is what's not on it - places that spring to mind when you think of the Pinelands. It ignores the entire northern Pinelands, famous for its classic pitch pine forests and cedar bogs.

It goes nowhere near the Carranza Memorial; the globally rare pygmy pine plains; or Chatsworth, unofficial capital of the Pinelands.

It only skirts the southern edge of the region's famous cranberry farms.

Even Minnick was puzzled.

"It's things like that people would like to see, the cranberry bogs, the blueberry fields," she said.

Curious in its inclusion is the southern loop, which encompasses a large stretch of Delsea Drive. Although technically still in the national reserve, the Delaware Bay exerts a much stronger cultural and ecological influence here than the Pine Barrens.

Commission spokesman Francis Rapa said the loops at each end of the route are designed to help people in villages where concerns about economic hardships have been greatest. The route could always be expanded in the future, he said.

Marge Cunningham runs a small and cheerful craft store, the Bayside Gift Shop, on Delsea Drive in Maurice River, Cumberland County. A refurbished produce stand, it specializes in handmade crafts and quilts, many with lighthouse and other nautical themes.

Even summer shore traffic no longer comes this way, not since the construction of Route 347 about a decade ago as a bypass. It was after 3 p.m., and I was the first person to stop by all day.

Cunningham responded with a throaty laugh when I asked if she thought of herself as being a person of the Pinelands. Still, the Philadelphia native likes any idea that may bring more traffic past her store.

She's willing to add to her product line, if it will help.

"We're pretty much bay, but I'll go further if I can draw the customer in," she said in a serious tone. "That's my main thing."
http://www.courierpostonline.com/environment/m013103i.htm