Landmark funding for more parks in New Jersey’s great outdoors


By Michele S. Byers

With all that has been happening in New Jersey lately, you may have missed out on the biggest conservation news of the decade.

With strong bipartisan support in Congress, the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump, providing a huge shot in the arm for parks and open space across the nation.

The law has been hailed as the most significant federal conservation law since President Jimmy Carter doubled the size of the national park system 40 years ago.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Since the pandemic shutdown, access to close-to-home parks has been more important than ever.

Those who manage parks and preserves have seen a record number of people using public green spaces for exercise, fresh air and a healthy dose of nature.

Parks have proven themselves to be great for physical and mental health. They are places to find solitude in a secluded spot, or to enjoy a social connection by exercising with friends (keeping proper distance, of course).

The Great American Outdoors Act fully allocates $900 million a year – double the current spending – to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

For nearly 55 years, this fund has financed land acquisition and park development: everything from enormous national parks to small neighborhood playgrounds. It also provides up to $9.5 billion over five years to tackle a backlog of maintenance at national parks and federal lands.

The law is expected to create some 100,000 new jobs nationwide.

Established in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a great deal because it provides outdoor recreation for millions of people at no cost to taxpayers. It’s funded entirely through royalties from offshore oil and gas projects.

Over the years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped preserve iconic landscapes in every state, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia.

In New Jersey, this fund has provided more than $346 million to help establish, expand and improve public parks in all 21 counties, from small community parks to national recreation areas and wildlife refuges like the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

Other New Jersey places benefiting from the Land and Water Conservation Fund include Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens, Jesse Allen Park in Newark, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Island Beach State Park and Paterson’s Great Falls National Historic Park.

The New Jersey Highlands region has also benefited from this fund, protecting the clean drinking water of more than six million people, or nearly two-thirds of the state’s population.

Now that the Great American Outdoors Act is law, what is the impact for this state we’re in? The Trust for Public Land estimates New Jersey’s share of the new funding at up to $6.6 million.

Projects in New Jersey supported by the Land and Water Conservation Fund include:

• Continued revitalization of Camden Waterfront Park, extending it by nearly a half-mile with additional trails, picnic areas and spots for sightseeing along the Delaware River backchannel;

• Continued revitalization of Jesse Allen Park as a vibrant space for community gathering, recreation and athletics. When completed, it will be Newark’s second largest city-owned park, benefiting nearly 13,700 residents within a 10-minute walk, as well as residents of surrounding communities;

• An addition to the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area in Morris County, connecting 3,000 acres of preserved lands. This unique property flows into the Musconetcong River and Rockaway River watersheds and protects water quality in Lake Shawnee and Lake Hopatcong;

• Improvements at Liberty State Park, Spruce Run Recreation Area and Pequest Fish Hatchery.

Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic engine in New Jersey, generating nearly $19 billion in consumer spending every year and supporting 143,000 jobs, $5.9 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.

The new law will keep this economic engine purring and provide new jobs. A big thank you to New Jersey’s Congressional delegation for unanimously and enthusiastically supporting this law.

As the nation’s most densely populated state, we need to keep providing parks and recreation areas for the public, and maintaining and improving the ones we have.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at [email protected]