By Michele S. Byers
The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many lives lost, lockdowns, school and business closings, economic uncertainty and political divisions. In the midst of it all we found a silver lining as New Jerseyans embraced and enjoyed parks and green spaces.
The past year this state we’re in saw encouraging progress on climate action, clean energy, environmental justice, reductions in plastic pollution, and more preserved open space and farmland.
Parks and open space – It is no secret New Jerseyans love nature and open space as demonstrated by the overwhelming success of every statewide land preservation ballot question in the past 60 years.
During the lockdown, people flocked to parks and preserves, proving parks and open space are vital to both mental and physical health, offering places to exercise, enjoy nature and socialize in the fresh outdoor air.
In 2020, New Jersey’s dedicated land preservation funding from the Corporate Business Tax went up, providing $113 million for land acquisition, conservation, farmland preservation, recreation projects, improvements to state parks, and historic preservation grants. This funding will be supplemented by unspent funds from previous years, making more land preservation possible in 2021.
At the national level, the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law in August with support from New Jersey’s entire Congressional delegation, providing permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the full authorized amount of $900 million a year.
This fund is America’s most important land preservation program and in New Jersey it has supported the creation of parks, preserves, wildlife refuges and recreation areas in all 21 New Jersey counties.
Climate change action – As a coastal state, New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding, sea level rise, and stronger, more frequent storms.
In October, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection released the Global Warming Response Act 80×50 report, a strong call to action detailing the steps needed to achieve the state’s goal of an 80% emissions reduction by 2050.
One notable recommendation is using “natural solutions” like planting new forests on cleared land, slowing conversion of existing forests to development, restoring forests that have suffered from insects, fire and pathogens, and conducting scientifically based stewardship in healthy forests that are already storing carbon efficiently.
The report also calls for reduced reliance on fossil fuels and an aggressive move toward clean energy sources like wind and solar.
One piece of good news was Gov. Murphy’s announcement that construction will begin on an offshore wind project that can provide enough clean energy to power nearly 250,000 homes while creating thousands of good, local jobs.
But clean energy only makes sense if it is located well. A horrible example in 2020 was a proposal for a utility-scale solar project on more than 800 acres of prime farmland in Salem County.
New Jersey should not sacrifice its best farmland when there are many other sites – such as industrial brownfields and rooftops – where solar installations are more appropriate.
Pipelines – The year 2020 saw continued efforts to stop unneeded fossil fuel infrastructure like natural gas pipelines, including the proposed PennEast pipeline in Hunterdon and Mercer counties, and the Southern Reliability Link in the Pine Barrens.
During the past year, underground drilling, known as horizontal directional drilling, resulted in spills of muddy sludge during construction of the Southern Reliability Link pipeline.
The sludge seriously damaged a home and polluted nearby streams. Unfortunately, this type of accident is not uncommon. The state temporarily suspended permits, but later allowed construction to resume. Lawsuits are pending.
In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear PennEast’s petition to overturn a Third Circuit appellate decision in favor of the State of New Jersey denying PennEast the right to condemn state-preserved lands.
The PennEast pipeline would cross hundreds of acres preserved by the State of New Jersey and its partners, harming pristine water resources and rare wildlife. New Jersey’s Ratepayer Advocate found no need for the project, calling it unfair to ratepayers.
Big win on environmental justice – For years, New Jersey’s poor, urban and minority communities have borne the brunt of environmental contamination. In September, after much hard work from environmental justice advocates, Gov. Murphy signed the landmark Environmental Justice Act.
The new law requires the Department of Environmental Protection to consider cumulative public health impacts on overburdened communities when reviewing development applications.
This will help prevent facilities like power plants, landfills and incinerators from being built or expanded if they would create hazards in communities already impacted by pollution.
The agency also created a new position, the Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Justice and Equity, to ensure that all communities are represented.
Plastic bag ban passed – In a huge victory for wildlife and a clean environment, Gov. Murphy signed the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, the nation’s strongest law to curb the use of plastics.
The ban on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers won’t take effect until May 2022, but local plastic bag bans in about 130 New Jersey municipalities will remain in effect during the phase-in period.
In addition to prohibiting single-use plastic bags, the law will ban large stores from providing paper bags, and plastic straws will be available at restaurants and bars by request only.
Many of us are happy to see the end of 2020 and are looking forward to a better year. Here’s a sneak preview of some hopeful environmental initiatives.
Coming up – This year, the Department of Environmental Protection will finalize its plan to restore the contaminated interior section of the state’s most popular park, Liberty State Park along the Hudson River waterfront.
Numerous conservation groups are supporting the restoration plans, but threats to the park continue from backers of a neighboring private golf course that has been pressing to acquire part of the park. Two public hearings are scheduled later this month.
The Department of Environmental Protection is developing regulations to implement its climate change program.
New Jersey has some of the most effective regional land use protection plans in the nation, but appointments to both the Highlands Council and the Pinelands Commission have been left vacant for too long.
Without these appointments, both agencies are hindered in their ability to protect the water supply for more than 75% of New Jersey residents. It is critical that Gov. Murphy’s appointments of several highly qualified individuals go forward in 2021.
Here’s to goodbye and good riddance to 2020 and welcoming a healthy environment and happy citizenry in 2021!
To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com