MEDFORD — An institution in South Jersey is in danger of shutting its doors for good due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, located at 4 Sawmill Road in Medford, may be just weeks from closing if more financial assistance is not forthcoming.
The refuge, which also includes a nature center and rehabilitation hospital, recently started a fund-raising campaign on Facebook and has nearly reached its $50,000 goal ($46,286) as of April 16, but that will only help in the immediate future.
“The rushed campaign to raise funds has been a wonderful act of deep generosity, support, and alarm by the residents of Medford Township and surrounding communities,” said Dennis Miranda, who replaced Jeanne Gural as the refuge’s Executive Director in January. “The financial support by the public has extended our shelf life for up to three months more. Cedar Run can cling to life, but, if by June 2020 if the pandemic maintains a stranglehold on society, we may not survive the month.”
The COVID-19 crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for the refuge.
“The pandemic has brought to a halt dozens of environmental education engagements in area schools,” said Miranda. “Curriculum regarding water quality, wildlife, biodiversity and the natural history of the New Jersey Pine Barrens have been lost for the remainder of the school year. Weekend programs and guided nature tours have also been canceled due to the voluntary home confinement.”
Miranda said the refuge’s losses of income are expected to be catastrophic.
“The loss of income is projected to be well over $100,000 by June 30, 2020,” he said. “With the recent announcement that schools will be closed for the rest of this academic year, there is no hope of ever recovering the lost revenue.”
Miranda continued: “Thousands of visitors come to Cedar Run every year. Spring is the most popular season at Cedar Run where dozens of species of birds can be found, blooming wildflowers, balmy weather and gentle-to-walk trails are the annual lure after a long winter. In 2019 alone, nearly 10,000 visitors came to Cedar Run before the summer. A wide variety of programs have been canceled including our Earth Day festivities. Families with young kids marvel at the enclosures filled with wildlife from Grey Squirrels to Bald Eagles, our national symbol can be seen from a safe distance.”
Lori Swanson has been the refuge’s Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation since December 2012.
“We have more than 60 permanent residents that are here because their injuries prevent their release back to the wild,” said Swanson. “Many are birds of prey that have suffered wing fractures, which would not heal properly and inhibit their ability to hunt effectively. Some of the injuries are ‘mental’ in that birds are imprinted and our mammals are habituated to humans.
“In 2019, the wildlife hospital admitted 5,103 wild animals native to New Jersey,” said Swanson. “We saw nearly 150 different species. We are the only large wildlife rehabilitation center in South Jersey and serve all counties in that region. Our busiest season runs from April-October, when all of the wildlife are having babies. Sadly, that is our most expensive time of year and when the pandemic hit us hard financially. At any given time during the summer, we could have up to 400 animals in our care JUST for rehabilitation and that does not include our permanent residents.”
Despite the pandemic, Swanson noted that business is as usual at the rehab hospital.
“Our wildlife hospital is still accepting any native wild animal to NJ that is in need of help,” said Swanson. “We have not changed the way that we care for the animals, and we are still working hard to give them their second chance. We are the only ones in the area to provide that second chance. If we are gone, they will have nowhere to go for care. Our staff and volunteers are still here, taking all necessary precautions for our safety as well, but doing everything we can to keep our high standards of care.”
The refuge relies on nearly 200 volunteers yearly to work in the hospital, as well as helping with events, education, and groundskeeping.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had nine full-time staff and upwards of 20 part-timers that supported the wildlife hospital and environmental education programs,” said Miranda. “Today, we are maintaining full-time staff while most of the part-time staff have been laid off. The staff is furiously working on fund-raising and donor development to increase revenue to extend the life of the organization every single day to extend our lifeline into the future.”
Miranda pointed out that the refuge would not survive if not for dedicated volunteers.
“The organization is blessed to have an enthusiastic base of support with over 150 volunteers that mostly work at the wildlife hospital. The volunteers who work at the hospital are central to the operations,” said Miranda. “In 2019 alone they amassed 65,000 hours of support! Even today, the volunteers are the backbone of the wildlife hospital as they enable Cedar Run to maintain essential services of caring for, rehabilitating and releasing formerly injured and sick animals back into the wild.”
“Today, we are fast approaching a financial cliff,” said Miranda. “The wonderful generosity of our community has sustained us for a few more months. Very soon, we will have to lay off the majority of our personnel for the foreseeable future.” Cedar Run has applied for funding from the Payroll Protection Plan program provided by the federal CARES Act, according to Miranda.
“But with confusion and frenzied competition for the funding, approval of the application is not assured nor is the timing of the decision by the Small Business Administration (SBA),” he said.
“The greatest hope for funding lies in the Medford Township Open Space Trust Fund,” said Miranda. “According to the 2018 Audit Statement, Medford Township earns roughly $730,000 every year of property taxes dedicated to the acquisition of farmland, open space, and passive and active recreation programs. The township had $3,375,000 in its open space trust fund in 2019. The Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge is requesting $100,000 in financial aid to help the organization weather the pandemic immediately.”
The Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge is a private non-profit conservation organization running a sanctuary. The 181-acre preserve is in fact; public land. In 1997, the New Jersey Green Acres Program bought the development rights of the land, ensuring that it could never be developed, according to Miranda.
Furthermore, the 181-acre Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge is listed on the Medford Township Register of Open Space Inventory (ROSI) as required by the State of New Jersey to ensure that these lands remain public in perpetuity, according to Miranda.
Medford Township could not be reached for comment regarding this story.