By Clare Marie Celano
JACKSON – What began as an idea to preserve land for family activities has yielded more than 1,200 acres dedicated as trails for walking, hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.
The idea to preserve land and create trails evolved into the Jackson Pathfinders, a volunteer organization created in 1999 by Jackson’s government. A 13-member committee was created and tasked to mark, map and maintain trails.
The Jackson Pathfinders will celebrate another success at 2 p.m. May 21 when they host a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Purple Heart Trail.
The Purple Heart Trail is in Bunker Hill Bogs, an open space parcel on East Veterans Highway near the Whitesville Road intersection, according to the Pathfinders. The trail showcases former working cranberry bogs and is a popular place to fish, hike, bike, birdwatch or relax.
The May 21 event will celebrate the official opening of two new features recently added to the trail – an informational kiosk and signs for a digital nature trail.
The new self-guided digital nature trail provides visitors with information about the natural resources and wildlife of Bunker Hill Bogs. A QR code on each sign enables smart phone users to scan the code and link directly to the Pathfinders website (www.jacksonpathfinders.org) to read more while walking the trail.
The new trail features were funded through a grant from the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) to the Jackson Environmental Commission, which worked with the Pathfinders to complete the project.
Former mayor Vicki Rickabaugh reflected on the Pathfinders’ beginnings. She called it an “awesome undertaking” and said the group was created in the spring of 1999 by Ellen Repasy, who organized residents concerned about the increasing development in Jackson.
The Pathfinders, which operates under the Recreation Department, was eventually recognized as a township organization and given an operating budget.
“The Township Committee, many volunteers and myself worked on a very ambitious goal which was to dedicate 1,200 acres to Jackson by fundraising and purchases. We wanted the land to be used for recreation and preservation,” Rickabaugh said. “Our goal was preservation to bring the community closer, to enjoy nature and to make a difference by preserving as much land as we could for future generations.”
Jackson residents worked with the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust to accomplish those goals.
Ken Beyer, a 20-year resident, chairs the Pathfinders today. He began assisting with trail projects in 2009.
“As a family, we explored the trails numerous times and appreciated the effort others put into making them available so I began helping in 2009,” Beyer. “I became a member in 2011 and have served as chair since 2013. We have five officers, 13 active members on various committees and about 200 volunteers.”
Discussing the Purple Heart Trail’s new digital trail feature, Beyer said the Pathfinders established seven point-of-interest stations, each with an environmental theme such as Upland Forest, Vernal Pools, etc.
“As someone stops at a point of interest they can read a short blurb on a given topic. Then they can scan the QR code with their smart phone, which will take them to the Pathfinders’ website containing more information for that topic in case they are interested in learning more,” he said.
An informational kiosk has been placed at the midpoint of the trail. Students at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School, Brick Township, assisted by building most of the kiosk off-site.
Pathfinders Vice Chairman Tom Stevens said he was concerned about rapid development in Jackson and was curious about places to hike, so he joined the Pathfinders in 2001.
“The Pathfinders helped create four trails – Silver Stream, Steve Kitay, Purple Heart and Pleasant Grove,” Stevens said. “The parcels where we created or improved trails were donated.
“The family of Steve Kitay donated property to the township after his death in 2002. The Silver Stream property was donated to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation by Dr. J. Schulman and his wife in 1999. The Purple Heart Trail property was donated by Westlake Village LLC in 2001.”
Stevens said he has seen the Pathfinders advance from mapping and identifying trails to creating and improving trails.
“We have assembled a great core of dedicated members and volunteers and have helped the township secure several grants to help improve trails. We are grateful for the full support we have received from Jackson’s mayors and municipal government over the years,” he said.
Stevens said the Pathfinders is continuing to work toward a goal of creating a 15-mile circular trail in the middle of Jackson.
Stevens said the Purple Heart Trail was named by Mayor Michael Reina in honor of veterans. The trail is made up of sand roads that are more than 100 years old.
“The property was acquired in 1871 by Edward Johnson (a relative of a current Pathfinders member Laura Stone) and Cornelius Hood. Over the years it has been owned by the Holman, Switlik and Lipman families. In 1980 it was acquired by Leisure Technologies (U.S. Homes) which built the Westlake retirement community.
“In 2001, it was donated to the township by Westlake LLC. In 2005, the Pathfinders cleaned up the property with the help of many volunteers and in 2007, helped the township secure a $25,000 recreational trails grant to improve the trail. The grant paid for a parking lot, a viewing platform, a boat ramp, signs, gates, benches and fencing,” he said.