Talk about off the beaten path: If you’re headed to Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge by way of Jackson Road in Medford, you literally run out of asphalt before you happen upon the signs pointing to the tucked-away place that many people consider the true gateway to the Pine Barrens.

Despite its deep-in-the-forest locale, upon arriving at Woodford’s nature center, one has a sense of coming home. The grounds are rustic and tranquil, and inside there are touchable exhibits, a comfy classroom and a gift shop featuring fair trade, locally sourced and handmade items. The folks who run the place are welcoming and friendly, including George Martin, a nature center staffer who greets you at the door, and MaryAnn Ragone, the assistant executive director, who works busily behind the scenes on just about anything and everything.

Something else you can’t help but notice when you step onto the grounds of this lovely refuge in the Pines … it’s almost impossible to tamp down the excitement of the new executive director, Dennis Miranda, who recently took the helm after Jeanne Gural, the former executive director, stepped down.

“There is a great history and a great legacy at Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge,” Miranda said, during a recent visit by 70and73.com to the 171-acre property, which in addition to the nature center, includes a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, a wildlife housing area (for permanent furry and feathered residents), a reptile room and a network of interpretive trails that highlight the unique flora and fauna of the Pine Barrens.

Miranda talked enthusiastically about the refuge’s three-pronged mission: wildlife rehabilitation, environmental education and habitat conservation. He noted proudly that in 2019, volunteers collectively performed 65,000 hours of work on behalf of the refuge. About volunteers, he added: “These people aren’t picking posies — they’re working!"

He talked about his vision of being good stewards of the unique property, and making sure that the wisdom and expertise of longtime volunteers and staffers are passed along in order to continue the important work for generations to come. “There is a passion, a labor of love, a deep spiritual connection to the land, the birds, the animals that happens when you spend time here.”

He also pointed out that more than 5,000 animals were rescued, cared for, rehabilitated and returned to the wild last year alone.

“From gray squirrels to bald eagles — we turn no animals away,” Miranda said.

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Miranda, who lives with his family in Upper Gwynedd Township in Pennsylvania, has spent his nearly three-decade career in conservation, including working to save the New Jersey Highlands and helping to launch the Western Highlands Scenic Byway. He also describes himself as a bird enthusiast and a self-taught naturalist. Upon arriving at Woodford, he began reading everything he could find about the Pine Barrens, including books by the renowned Howard Boyd.

“I feel like I’m on vacation here; I’m thriving,” he said, with palpable excitement, raving about the dedicated staffers, board members and volunteers associated with Woodford. “Working with them is a privilege.”

Since he joined the staff in January, Miranda meets regularly with Jeanne Woodford, a co-founder who grew up at the refuge and still lives on an adjacent property. Woodford’s parents, Jim and Betty Woodford, purchased the property in 1951 (reportedly for about $5,600 total) in what was then considered the wilds of Medford. The couple devoted the rest of their lives to Pinelands preservation, environmental education and wildlife rehabilitation.

Erin Kiefer-Rounds, Woodford’s director of education, not only runs in-house programs, field trips and a host of off-site adventures, she also produces newsletters, keeps the website updated and performs dozens of other vital tasks that help keep the place running smoothly. She recently accompanied Miranda to a meeting of Medford Sunrise Rotary, where she introduced the group to Nazar, a 4-year-old Eastern Screech-owl, who, because she is blind in one eye, is a permanent resident (and an adorable ambassador) of the refuge.

During a tour of the property, Mike O’Malley, the assistant director of wildlife services, was truly in his element as he led the way to the wildlife rehabilitation hospital, where all types of injured animals are treated, rehabilitated and eventually released back to nature. Most recent patients have been squirrels, pigeons, chipmunks, crows, opossums, foxes, raccoons, skunks, ducks and gulls.

People know of Woodford’s reputation and drop off injured birds and animals throughout the year. There are detailed instructions on the website (cedarrun.org) under the “Capture and Transport” section. Or people can call and talk to one of the experts if they’re not sure what to do.

“Our advice is, don’t panic, just give us a call and we’ll walk you through what to do if you find an injured animal,” O’Malley said. “It’s our passion — it’s what we do.” The number is (856) 983-3329, ext. 107.

 The tour of the refuge included a visit to various tailor-made enclosures for the permanent residents of the refuge — the animals who, because of their permanent injuries, are not able to be released back into the wild. On a recent day, an assortment of owls, blue jays, hawks, turkey vultures and a pair of bald eagles were enjoying their well-appointed cages. There’s a separate section, a high-walled fawn enclosure, designed and constructed especially for timid deer.

“Our goal here is to improve the quality of life and increase the chance of survival for animals,” O’Malley said.

During the tour, volunteer Richard Jones happened to be inside one of the enclosures, calmly and confidently training a falcon to sit on a perch. “I love it here,” he said, adding that he does a little bit of everything, including sweeping floors and washing dishes.”

There’s so much more to say about Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge. People can plan a day visit and explore the grounds, take guided tours, enjoy the picnic pavilion or visit the nature play area with the kids. Annual memberships are available for hiking, picnicking and wildlife watching. People can support the nonprofit by symbolically “adopting” one of the 60 resident animals who are unable to be returned to the wild. The Adopt-A-Wild-One program, which is especially popular with children, helps provide food, shelter and medical care for all of the animals admitted to Woodford each year.

A recently held “Baby Shower” — a preparation event for the upcoming spring season and the expected arrival of thousands of orphaned and injured animals — netted much-needed supplies for the hospital, including paper towels, bleach, dish soap, laundry detergent, ziplock bags, trash bags and peanut butter. There’s an upcoming fundraising event, Serenade for Wildlife on April 19 at 2 p.m. at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Tabernacle, featuring an afternoon of classical music, refreshments and special appearance by one of the non-releasable residents of the refuge. For details and tickets, go to cedarrun.org.

“This place is shining brighter than ever,” Miranda said. “We’re not just a destination for eco-tourism; we’ve been part of the community for 70 years. We want to be the natural destination for people who love the natural beauty of the Pine Barrens.”

The basics

Address 4 Sawmill Road, Medford, NJ 08055 
 Phone 856.983.3329
 Website  https://www.cedarrun.org/
 M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
 Sa, Su 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
 Cost $7 adults; $5, 4-12; under 3, free