By Tim Gilbert
The year 2022 will go down in history as one defined by many challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic dragged into its third year, the war in Ukraine destabilized world security and finances, and record heat, droughts and storms again brought home the reality of a changing climate. New Jersey, like everywhere else, shared the pain.
Despite these difficulties, this state we’re in made encouraging progress in 2022 on environmental protection, conservation and outdoor recreation.
Highlights include reduced plastic pollution, a partial ban on pesticides that harm bees and other pollinators, a task force studying ways to boost protections for public forests, work to implement the Environmental Justice Act, steps to advance clean offshore wind and solar energy, and more.
• Plastic bag ban – In May, New Jersey’s ban on single-use plastic shopping bags went into effect. Thanks to the state’s 2020 Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, shoppers were required for the first time to supply their own reusable bags.
By the end of the first year, New Jersey will have avoided using an estimated 3.44 billion plastic bags and 68 million paper bags, preventing tons of waste from going into landfills and waterways.
• Protecting pollinators – In 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Save the Bees bill, which limits neonicotinoid pesticide applications in non-agricultural settings like gardens, lawns and golf courses.
“Neonics” don’t just kill insect pests; they also wipe out beneficial insects, including butterflies, wild native bees and domesticated honeybees. In turn, bird populations decline because of the loss of food sources. While the new law is a positive step, neonics are still allowed in New Jersey for agricultural uses.
• Forest Task Force – Forests and other lands sequester and store about 9% of New Jersey’s annual greenhouse gas emissions while providing critical habitat for wildlife, outdoor recreation, and clean air and water.
Yet the vast majority of New Jersey’s public forests are not adequately protected against inappropriate logging, over-browsing by deer and invasive species.
In 2022, a Forest Stewardship Task Force was established to develop recommendations to the state Legislature to better protect and manage public forests.
• More offshore wind and solar energy – A key part of New Jersey’s climate action plan is a transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities took a step forward in 2022 by implementing a new utility-scale solar program that will result in more clean energy while bringing down the costs of solar incentives and ensuring sound siting to protect important farmland soils and forests. New Jersey continues to be a leader in developing the offshore wind industry.
• “Outside Together” – New Jersey began working on the new Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which will set strategies for open space and recreation for the next five years and is required to maintain eligibility for funding from the National Park Service. The state intends to develop an aggressive engagement campaign to gather input from urban communities.
• Black Heritage Trail – A new state law signed in 2022 will establish a Black Heritage Trail linking landmarks, heritage sites, museums and attractions highlighting moments of political, military, artistic, cultural and social importance in the state’s Black history.
Despite this progress, New Jersey still has plenty of work to do on environmental and conservation issues in the new year:
• Environmental Justice Law – For years, New Jersey’s poor, urban, black and brown communities have borne the brunt of environmental contamination.
In 2020, Gov. Murphy signed the landmark Environmental Justice Act to help protect overburdened communities. Rules implementing the act were introduced in the summer of 2022, but still need to be adopted as soon as possible.
• Warehouse development – In 2022, New Jersey continued to see significant development of massive warehouses in many parts of the state, threatening prime farmland and communities already overburdened by pollution.
The State Planning Commission issued voluntary guidelines to help municipalities plan for warehouse development, but the state and municipalities are still lacking the tools needed to deal with this challenge.
• Fixing state parks – In 2022, a partnership of conservation organizations – including New Jersey Conservation Foundation – launched the “Fix Our Parks” campaign highlighting the need for more funding and stronger enforcement to protect New Jersey’s state park system.
A report commissioned by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance found that state parks are underfunded, understaffed and facing threats from illegal off-road vehicle use and dumping. The Governor and Legislature should make increased funding a priority in the upcoming budget.
• Flood prevention – In 2022, the state Department of Environmental Protection published draft rules to better protect communities from flooding from extreme storms, like the remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021. The public comment period ends on Feb. 3.
If adopted as written, the new rules will raise flood plain elevations by 2 feet, making it harder to build in areas near rivers and streams, protecting lives and property.
To learn more about the inland flood rules or to make a comment, go to https://dep.nj.gov/inland-flood-protection-rule/
Please continue to make your voices heard in 2023 on the need for our elected officials to address these pressing issues.
Tom Gilbert is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.