New Jersey’s native plants need stronger protections

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

You wouldn’t guess this from its name, but the wild plant called sensitive joint-vetch has beautiful buttery yellow flowers with red centers and veins. Its name comes from its leaves, which fold slightly when touched.

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American chaffseed is another wild plant whose name gives little clue about its attractive blossoms – large, tubular, purplish-yellow flowers on a sturdy stalk. Then there’s small whorled pogonia, a delicate orchid that grows in hardwood forests; seabeach amaranth, which grows on sandy beaches and whose purple-edged leaves outshine its tiny white flowers; and swamp pink, a wetlands plant with bubblegum-pink flower clusters on slender stalks.

What do these plants have in common? They’re all New Jersey natives that are globally rare and seriously imperiled. They are listed as endangered by the federal government and somewhat protected. But these and many other rare native New Jersey plants need more help to ensure that they don’t go extinct and become lost forever.

New Jersey has about 2,100 native plant species – that is, plants that occur naturally and without human introduction in our state.

About 800 are considered rare and of conservation concern by the state’s Natural Heritage Program, run by the Office of Natural Lands Management under the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). While New Jersey has only a handful of federally-listed plant species, there are 356 native plant species listed as “state endangered,” meaning they’re the ones closest to the brink of regional extinction.

Native plants face many threats, including habitat loss due to development. Preserving natural lands helps protect native plants against development. But even on preserved lands, exploding deer populations, competition from invasive plant species, illegal use of off-road vehicles, ill-conceived habitat alteration projects, and the ever-increasing threat of climate change are whittling away at rare plant populations.

Sadly, New Jersey’s rare native plants have few protections under the law, except in the Pinelands and Highlands regions, where permit reviews offer some protection.

The state is required by law to keep a list of endangered native plants, but it’s only that – a list with no teeth. If we want our rare plants to continue to exist, we as a state need to do better!

For example, a population of a rare wildflower called twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla, named for Thomas Jefferson) is currently threatened by a proposed state Department of Transportation (DOT) highway project within Washington Crossing State Park.

The DEP is working with the DOT to adjust its plans to avoid impacts to twinleaf and other rare plant populations, but success is not guaranteed because there are no rules specifically protecting rare plant species at this Natural Heritage Priority Site in the state park. Since tougher regulations could never come in time, only strong public advocacy can help ensure that the plants are protected!

One positive development for native plants is that, thanks to the efforts of the 11 New Jersey-based Garden Clubs affiliated with the Garden Club of America (GCA), the state Legislature recently passed a joint resolution designating April as Native Plants Month. It was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on April 14.

The resolution calls upon public officials, businesses, educational institutions, and citizens to observe the month by planting or providing regenerative care to native plants, removing non-native invasive plants, and engaging in educational activities to learn about the benefits of preserving native plants.

According to Wendy Mager, conservation chair of the Garden Club of Princeton, the GCA became involved in this cause to highlight the critical importance of native plants to sustaining healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. She noted that many animal species including pollinators, butterfly caterpillars, and birds – are at risk of extinction because non-native plants aren’t part of the food chain they depend on.

The Native Plants Month resolution is a small but important step toward building momentum for stronger protections. Right now, this state we’re in is far behind neighboring New York and Pennsylvania in safeguarding our rarest native plants.

Another important step is the introduction of a state Senate bill, S2186, aimed at stopping the spread of invasive species through better regulation, including a ban on the sale of invasive plants. The legislation would also reinstate the New Jersey Invasive Species Council, an advisory group that was eliminated in 2010.

Here are some other steps that should be taken:

  • Enact a new state law making it illegal to harm rare native plants, just as it’s illegal to harm threatened and endangered animals. Under state law, wildlife belongs to the people of New Jersey, not to the owners of the land on which it is living. People can’t just go out and kill a bald eagle or a bobcat – and shouldn’t be allowed to wipe out plants threatened by extinction! The law should also create a designation of “threatened” as well as “endangered” for plants.
  • Write effective regulations based on the law, and hire enough staff to enforce the regulations. Unfortunately, the state’s Office of Natural Lands Management has had its staff cut repeatedly in recent years. The Office of Natural Lands Management must be given the ability to revive and strengthen its Natural Heritage and Natural Areas programs to protect native plants.
  • Engage in effective enforcement against illegal off-road vehicle activities on both private and public lands.
  • Continue to buy and preserve key conservation lands that contain habitat for rare native plants. The state buys some land directly, and at the same time provides funding for private nonprofit organizations like New Jersey Conservation Foundation to acquire and preserve land.
  • Speak up for native plants! Support the Invasive Species Bill, and urge your legislators to pursue strong protections for rare native plants. Future generations deserve to have them, and the animals that rely on them, living on this earth!

To learn more about native plants, visit the Native Plant Society of New Jersey website at https://npsnj.org/.

For information about the state Office of Natural Lands Management and its programs to protect native plants, go to https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/natural/index.html.

And to learn about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including habitat for rare native plants – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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