Twenty acres in Ocean County seems like a drop in the bucket compared to its overall land mass of 636 square miles. But a small open space purchase this week by the Board of Freeholders completes a preservation patchwork of more than five-thousand acres in Waretown.

Officials approved the withdrawal of $105,000 from the county's Natural Lands Trust Fund for the tiny tract adjacent to Wells Mills Park, running alongside Wells Mills Road.

County Planning Director Dave McKeon says that anyone who heads west off the Parkway or Route 9 in the region encounters something as close to the forest primeval as Ocean County is likely to reach as land is cleared to house and serve a still-growing population. It's centered around the county park, which is a passive tract with few recreational amenities.

"If you drive along Wells Mills Road," he says, "you have almost a wilderness experience. The whole area lends itself to a wilderness-type designation."

The Natural Lands Trust Fund is fueled by a dedicated portion of the county tax rate that amounts to just over a penny on every $100 of assessed property valuation. Members of the board-appointed Natural Lands Trust Commission consider purchase opportunties with willing sellers. So far, says McKeon, it's helped keep the land scale tipped in the open-space direction.

"Up to about 60 percent is preserved," he says, "when you look at federal, state, county and non-profit lands that have been purchased, as well as military lands and preservation areas of the Pinelands."