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Stronger rules needed to protect New Jersey’s public lands

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by Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

New Jersey is the most urbanized and densely-populated state, which is why residents need a top-notch open space preservation program. With the enthusiastic support of voters, the state Green Acres Program has helped protect more than 1.5 million acres since 1961.

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Billions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in providing parks and saving land with high conservation value. These lands safeguard clean air and water, provide outdoor recreation, mitigate climate change, and protect the biological diversity of native plants and animals.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which runs Green Acres, is planning an update of the rules that govern how many of these public lands are utilized and protected.

This pending update is a perfect opportunity for the DEP to bolster protections for public land. Specifically, the agency should put an end to practices that harm the ecological benefits of preserved land and undermine the integrity of the Green Acres Program. These include “diversions” of parkland for other uses, commercial logging of public forests, and using synthetic chemicals during farming of preserved parkland.

A coalition of conservation organizations, including New Jersey Conservation Foundation, is suggesting several key rule changes to better protect New Jersey’s open space for current and future generations.

Crack down on parkland diversions – When land is preserved with Green Acres funding, protections are meant to last forever. Exceptions can be made, but only when a compelling public need is shown. In those cases, diverted land is supposed to be replaced with lands that are equivalent in monetary value and conservation benefits.

Though diversions are rare, there have been a number without clear justification or equivalent replacements. For example, the town of Seaside Heights gave up a public beach to allow for construction of a commercial amusement pier; in exchange it got inaccessible wetlands and an antique carousel to be used as a boardwalk exhibit. In Cape May County, habitat for endangered tiger salamanders was destroyed to make way for a road at a county college, in exchange for already-protected wetlands. In an ongoing case, “temporary” school classroom trailers on Braddock Park in Bergen County have been there for 22 years, despite promises to remove them.

The Green Acres Program’s lack of enforcement authority in the latter case demonstrates the need to tighten rules on diversions. The public should be engaged from the beginning of any diversion process, and land replacement requirements should be multiplied when municipalities divert without permission to discourage them from asking for forgiveness after the fact.

The rules also need to be strengthened to prevent state lands acquired with Green Acres funding from being developed to benefit private commercial enterprises. This is happening now on the Cooley Preserve in Frenchtown, where a 1.6-acre impervious parking lot is being created on the banks of the Delaware River to benefit a private tubing concession without going through the diversion process.

Prioritize protection of forests – Forests on Green Acres properties should be protected for both the public’s enjoyment and their ecological benefits, and they should be off limits to commercial activities.

Current Green Acres rules rightly emphasize the need to protect forests and do not call for harvesting wood products. Yet there are several glaring examples of commercial logging plans for public parks that were developed with no public input, and were stopped only when citizens found out and protested.

These include Roaring Rock Park in Warren County, where 395 acres of publicly owned forest would have been logged to profit the township; and Deer Path Park in Hunterdon County, where the county’s oldest, most mature trees atop Round Mountain were tagged for commercial logging.

The DEP should move forward with adopting the New Jersey Forest Task Force’s recommendations that formal rules be put in place governing all forest management on public lands, and that commercial timber management should not be allowed as a goal for any forest management plan.

Reduce chemicals on leased farmland – Often, when Green Acres lands are preserved, they are leased to farmers until plans can be made for habitat restoration. Currently, there’s nothing in the DEP rules to prevent these farmers from using harmful synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In many cases these farming practices continue in perpetuity.

This runs counter to a DEP policy prioritizing the creation of habitat for insect pollinators, whose global populations have fallen dramatically in recent years. Chemical farming that includes the use of “neonic” insect killers and broad-spectrum weed killers has been implicated in the loss of pollinators and birds that feed on insects.

Green Acres land currently in chemical-intensive farming should be converted to climate friendly practices that don’t rely on harmful chemicals, and ultimately converted to pollinator meadows, or replanted in warm-season grasses or forest. This would create healthy habitat for wildlife and sequester more carbon to help New Jersey meet its climate goals. The DEP should adopt a strict time limit for phasing out chemical use.

These are just a few suggestions the DEP should consider when drafting its new rules. Green Acres lands belong to all New Jerseyans, and these lands should be stewarded to create the greatest possible benefits for people and wildlife in this state we’re in.

To learn more about the Green Acres Program, including its mission and success stories, go to https://dep.nj.gov/greenacres/.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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