In 2001, Moorestown Township bought 130 acres known as the Benner Farm to protect it from the development boom that was transforming the rural landscape along both sides of Westfield Road.
Twenty years later, the grassroots nonprofit Save the Environment of Moorestown (STEM) is leading an effort to transform the Burlington County site, now called Swede Run Fields, into a destination for butterflies, birds, bees, other pollinators — and people. All of which are species under significant stress and in need of safe and nurturing places.
“When I started this, I wasn’t sure if it had much of a chance to happen,” said STEM president Mark Pensiero, 65. The retired business operations director at Lockheed Martin, who grew up in Moorestown, has been working on the Swede Run project for almost two years.
“When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of time on my hands,” said Pensiero, a father of three and grandfather of two. He’s also a devoted birdwatcher.
“This will be a habitat that is not common in this part of New Jersey anymore,” he said. “This plot of ground is big enough to attract threatened species of birds to nest here. The pieces for this project have all come together, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Last spring, about 30 volunteers planted wildflowers such as butterfly weed in a demonstration garden on the east side of the fields. Designed by STEM member Karen Walker, the 4,50-square-foot garden bloomed gloriously around a 19th-century barn made of ironstone that’s a much-photographed reminder of the township’s agricultural past. The Historical Society of Moorestown and volunteers helped save the beloved building from demolition a decade ago.
“There were tons of monarch butterflies here” in September, Pensiero said. “It was one of my favorite examples of how nature is amazing.”
Later this fall, with the support of the Xerces Society and other conservation groups, as well as the assistance of the federal and township governments, STEM has arranged for 70 acres on the west side to be seeded with little bluestem and other native grasses to create a habitat for ground-nesting birds such as eastern meadowlarks and perhaps even the grasshopper sparrow.
Plans also call for enhancing two small patches of west side wetlands into vernal pools — shallow and seasonal bodies of water — that will help attract migrating birds as they follow the Delaware River portion of the Atlantic Flyway. The west side of Westfield Road also will feature a quarter-mile-long, 30-foot-wide array of wildflowers that pollinators love.
“It will be stunning. It will be a ‘wow’ factor as you drive down the road,” Pensiero said, noting there also will be “real beauty to the native grasslands in all seasons.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program is providing about $18,000 for the project because of “the exceptional ecological value” of the site, program coordinator and wildlife biologist Elizabeth Freiday said.
“It wouldn’t be happening without the commitment from the township, and the people of STEM,” said Freiday, who works out of the service’s New Jersey office in Galloway Township, Atlantic County. There are about 120 partnership agreements statewide; about half are in South Jersey.
“Projects like this can’t get off the ground without the right people,” Freiday said.
One such volunteer is Colleen Malloy Lopresti, a STEM steering committee member who was visiting the pollinator garden on a recent weekday. “It’s great to have this place to get my hands in the dirt,” she said.
In 2001, Moorestown contributed 25%, or $1.8 million, of the $7.3 million purchase price of Benner Farm, with Burlington County picking up another 25%, and the remaining half paid for by the N.J. Green Acres program. In addition to the active farming, which ended in 2017, the site has long offered two miles of walking trails and, since 2016, a dog park.
Moorestown Mayor Nicole Gillespie said Swede Run Fields — named for the creek that runs through the eastern side of the property — “is the largest un-forested open space parcel” in the suburban township, which has a population of just over 20,000.
“The council made the decision not to continue leasing it to farmers, because some residents were concerned about the use of pesticides,” she said. “STEM came to us and said, ‘Here’s an idea,’ and we loved it: Passive recreation, habitat, and birdwatching are really a better way to make use of it. STEM brought the expertise and the passion and really drove this forward.”
The public-private collaboration enables the township to spend “a relatively small amount of money” — about $20,000 — to pay for mowing and other services, the mayor said. “This is a great investment.”
So far, STEM has spent about $8,000 and is looking for ways to make maintenance of the native grass fields — where the buildup of thatch requires regular removal — economically sustainable. Pensiero said the group is talking to at least one South Jersey farmer who may be interested in harvesting and selling the thatch to mushroom farms, which would lower the cost of the work.
“We want to keep this thing going for many, many years,” he said.
The Swede Run Fields project also is helping reenergize STEM, which will mark its 50th anniversary in 2022.
“You have no idea the influence those two ladies had on me, and on the future of Moorestown,” said Rich, who like Smith and Yanai, has a significant section of Moorestown open space named in her honor.
“Swede Run Fields is a perfect example of what STEM’s mission was, and is,” she said.
Said Pensiero: “They blazed the path, and they had a lot of foresight.”
The efforts of the founders, their contemporaries, and current STEM members alike “have made the town a better place,” he said.
“And Swede Run Field is probably the thing I’m most proud of.”