CAPE MAY - At the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, situated beneath one of North America's premier migratory bird flyways, every new parcel of land is as important as the center square in a patchwork quilt.
This month, 437 more acres of grasslands, salt marshes and forests were purchased by government agencies and conservation groups and added to properties that have been pieced together like scraps of fabric since 1989.
The latest acquisition, along Bidwell Creek in the southern part of the refuge, expands the wildlife refuge to 11,496 acres across Dennis, Lower, Middle and Upper Townships in Cape May County. The price was $6.8 million, bringing the total cost of refuge property to $27.2 million.
That this naturalists' paradise, which offers miles of unspoiled vistas on the coastal plain, exists on the Cape May peninsula is miraculous, say preservationists.
Transferring so much land from private hands to save it from development would be a feat anywhere. Doing it in the most densely populated state - and in a county whose Shore real estate is widely coveted - is a supreme accomplishment, said Blaine Phillips, Mid-Atlantic director for the Conservation Fund.
The nonprofit group, which is based in Arlington, Va., and has helped save more than six million acres from development nationwide since 1985, wrangled funding for the latest purchase from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Jersey's congressional delegation, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Cape May County.
A "generous" concession from landowner Braddock Enterprises, which knocked $617,500 from its asking price, helped, Phillips said.
"It's what we call 'building the layer cake,' " he said of tapping various sources. "Particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, it's absolutely critical to build multiple partnerships because land costs are more expensive."
The acquisition of the Bidwell Creek property creates an unfragmented habitat for wildlife including bald eagles, ospreys and diamondback terrapins. Many of the 360 species of birds, 30 types of mammals, and 45 varieties of reptiles and amphibians in the refuge need large, undeveloped expanses to thrive, wildlife experts say.
The Lower Township tract includes 371 acres of grasslands, marshes and forests; it is not known how much will be accessible to visitors. In the deal, Cape May County acquired 66 contiguous acres for the refuge for wildlife habitat and passive recreation, such as hiking and birding.
Six years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified 7,840 acres of the Jersey Shore that faced the threat of development and deserved conservation priority.
The plan targeted more than 4,500 acres in Cape May County, some of which could eventually expand the national refuge to 21,000 acres, said Howard Schlegel, the refuge's manager.
"This latest acquisition is an example of what can be accomplished when a coalition of interested partners join together in an effort that protects our environmental resources for the benefit of a diverse group of wildlife species and the public," he said.
Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez and Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo secured money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, Schlegel said. Money also came from a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The Cape May area is one of our state's natural treasures, and because of that Cape May County can attract a $500 million tourism industry," Menendez said in a statement.
"Investments like this one to expand the Cape May County National Wildlife Refuge protect the land and the wildlife that lives on it, bolster its reputation as a prime bird-watching attraction, and help guarantee the continued safety of the area's drinking-water supply," he said.