By Michele S. Byers
Ever wonder what the Green Acres signs are about all over New Jersey? No, they are not an advertisement for a funny old TV show.
Green Acres is the name of New Jersey’s hugely successful 60-year-old program of land preservation. You may not know the New Jersey Green Acres Program is a national leader in the preservation of hundreds of thousands of acres of parks, open space, historic landscapes and flood-prone properties.
How much of a leader is New Jersey? A recent study compared the 50 states and found that this state we’re in is second only to Alaska in the percentage of its total land mass set aside for parks and wildlife.
The study done by outdoor gear manufacturer CLIQ Products found that Alaska – which is more than 77 times the size of New Jersey – has 36.4% of its land dedicated to parks and wildlife. New Jersey, the nation’s fourth smallest and most urbanized state, has 20.1%.
Behind New Jersey in the top five are California, with 19.7% of land dedicated to parks and wildlife; Hawaii, 17.7%; and Washington, 13.1%.
The New Jersey numbers, however, do not include the state’s Farmland Preservation Program, also a national success story. Added together, New Jersey has preserved more than 30% of its land base.
The New Jersey Green Acres Program celebrated two milestones recently. The first was the preservation of 1,400 beautiful acres in Cumberland County – the culmination of more than 30 years of advocacy to block a multitude of development proposals that would have destroyed this pristine river and forest ecosystem.
This Pine Barrens ecological jewel, known as the Holly Farm, has the greatest concentration of rare species in New Jersey and is now part of the state’s Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area.
The second celebrated milestone was the 60th anniversary of the Green Acres Program itself.
Green Acres was founded on June 3, 1961 – nearly a decade before the first Earth Day – when then-Gov. Robert B. Meyner signed the first Green Acres Bond Act, easily passed by New Jersey voters later that same year.
“As one of the first state land acquisition programs, Green Acres was groundbreaking in 1961 and is now the longest-running continuous program of its kind in the country, preserving nearly 700,000 acres of land and hundreds of recreation facilities across New Jersey,” said Shawn M. LaTourette, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Examples of early purchases include 10,000 acres for Wawayanda State Park in Sussex County; nearly 5,000 acres for the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area in Monmouth and Mercer counties; and 3,000 acres of cranberry and blueberry fields in the Pine Barrens of Burlington and Ocean counties, now part of Brendan Byrne State Forest.
Other acquisitions included more than 280 acres for Liberty State Park in Hudson County and 8,000 acres in Upper Township, Cape May County.
New Jersey’s program has proved wildly successful and popular. Since 1961, New Jerseyans voted overwhelmingly to approve a dozen subsequent ballot measures to continue its funding.
More recently, in 2014, voters endorsed a constitutional amendment to establish a dedicated and permanent source of funding – a portion of the state’s corporate business tax – for land preservation.
The administrator of the Green Acres Program, Martha Sullivan Sapp, is the daughter of the first commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, the late Richard J. Sullivan.
“As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first Green Acres bond act, we thank New Jersey residents for consistently supporting funding to expand state parks and forests, preserve wildlife management areas, create local parks in cities and towns across the state, and much more,” Sapp said. “Our goal has been and will remain providing something for everyone.”
And she is right. New Jersey has everything from urban parks to remote wilderness areas, from the mountains to the beaches, and everything in between.
New Jersey has 51 state parks, forests, recreation areas and historic sites, with locations in every county. Among the most visited are Liberty State Park, Island Beach State Park, High Point State Park, D&R Canal State Park, Cape May Point State Park and Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.
New Jersey also has 124 wildlife management areas – preserved lands kept mostly in their natural state, with fewer amenities than parks. Most of New Jersey’s parks and wildlife management areas were created or expanded through the Green Acres Program.
The Green Acres Program can purchase lands directly, but the program also gives grants to municipal and county governments, and conservation nonprofits, to purchase land for permanent protection.
Projects can take years, or even decades, to come to fruition, like the most recent purchase of the Holly Farm
Not only do parks and preserved open spaces protect New Jersey’s high quality of life, they also provide economic benefits.
The CLIQ study found that New Jersey’s parks and wildlife lands generated outdoor recreational activities valued at $1,320 per capita. With about nine million residents living in New Jersey, that’s a lot of bucks.
Congratulations to Green Acres on the Holly Farm acquisition. It is named for an old orchard on the property, but nearly all of the land is natural forest between the pristine waterways of the Menantico Creek and the Manumuskin River.
And a very special thank you to the wonderful team at the Green Acres Program for all of their work over 60 years to make New Jersey a special place.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com