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A new natural Reserve is shaped by ancient ways
By Jayne Jacova Feld

When Tyrese “Bright Flower” Gould Jacinto led her tribal elders through the newly designated Cohanzick Nature Reserve in Salem County, it was more than the beauty and tranquility of the forest that gave them chills. The group felt a deep, historical bond with the ground beneath their feet.

“I’m not someone who believes in ghosts,” says Jacinto. “But I know energy cannot be destroyed or created. It’s all still here: the energy of the people who were born and died here, gave birth, were murdered here. I asked everyone to stop and take it in. And we all felt it. It was the goosebumps on our arms.”

Soon, this 63-acre expanse in Quinton Township will be open to the public. Recently acquired by the Bridgeton-based Native American Advancement Corp. (NAAC), the land offers more than just eco-friendly activities like hiking and birdwatching. Jacinto, the NAAC’s president and CEO, envisions the reserve as a sanctuary where visitors can learn tribal traditions and practices – such as crafting with gourds, brewing hibiscus root tea or wilderness survival skills. These immersive experiences, shaped by ancient wisdom passed down through generations, aren’t simply glimpses into history. According to Jacinto, they represent sustainable pathways to heal an ailing planet. 

“I feel I was put on earth to guide the children, to teach our ways of conservation,” says Jacinto. “Because if we continue at this pace – if we don’t live in balance and in harmony with nature – we are going to run out of fresh water by 2050.”

Founded by Jacinto in 2009, the NAAC has played a pivotal role in championing Native American causes, including self-sufficiency and cultural preservation. The non-profit offers a wide range of services, including educational and job training programs, financial literacy as well as conservation-based projects, such as weatherization and fostering home ownership.

The acquisition of the Cohanzick reserve land, which includes a former church building on the property, is both a natural progression of the work and a major leap. Establishing a cultural center has always been a cornerstone of “The Turtle Dream,” the organization’s long-term strategic vision, she adds.  

“We’ve long been stewards of the land,” Jacinto says. “This reserve is an extension of what we’ve been doing for years, be it tree care, water conservation or education.”

Located at 62 Gravely Hill Road and accessible via Route 49 in Salem County, the reserve is enveloped within the Burden Hill Forest, which stands as the final remnant of a once expansive woodland belt stretching from Monmouth County to Salem County and is now overseen by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Recognized by the New Jersey Audubon Society as a vital wildlife sanctuary, the forest is home to a rich diversity of avian life. Some 162 bird species, including red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, Coopers hawks, red-headed woodpeckers and 32 varieties of warblers, flourish here. Additionally, it’s a vital habitat for bald eagles, offering them essential nesting, foraging and wintering grounds.

“These 63 acres are ecologically significant,” says Rob Ferber, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s Regional Manager for the Delaware Bay Watershed who helped broker the land deal that involved the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. “Other than the building and the area around it, this area has never been farmed or developed or really touched in a modern way.”

Beyond the importance of connecting the 63 acres to some 600 acres of surrounding protected forest, delivering it to a conservation-based organization based on indigenous values adds another layer to the accomplishment, Ferber says.

“This land has been returned to the descendants of the people who occupied it in pre-colonial times. In today’s day and age, that really feels significant,” he says.

While the plans still await township approval, one standout feature for Ferber is the NAAC’s intent to label trails with signage showcasing indigenous plant and tree species both with their scientific names and by what they’re called by the Lenape Nation. Also, he’s excited about the unique educational opportunities the reserve will bring to South Jersey. 

“Among the classes, they hope to offer tracking skills, plant identification and wilderness first aid training,” he says. “In my previous roles, when we’ve needed access to such coursework, we’ve had to go out of state to get it.”

Given that all teachings are based on indigenous practices, the reserve will also be a gateway to Lenape culture, Jacinto says. “We plan to introduce our spirituality as a means to explain why we do certain things,” she says, “such as why we build a fire and how, when we gather around it, the smoke takes up our words and they become one with the universe.”

Explaining the Lenape culture underscores the urgency of climate action, she adds. 

“We’re one with nature. We’re one with the trees, the water, the grass, the air that we breathe,” she says. “So when the trees are dying, when the water is being polluted and pesticides poison the land, that breaks our hearts. It is the very reason why the Cohanzick Nature Reserve matters.”  

November 2023
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