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2023 New Jersey environmental highlights: Urban greening, land preservation, flood protection

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

No matter where you were in New Jersey in 2023, it was impossible not to notice signs of a changing climate. Wildfires in Canada brought an orange haze to New Jersey’s skies, along with hazardous air quality that triggered breathing problems. Tropical weather systems brought intense rainstorms that caused widespread flooding in many of the state’s low-lying areas. Globally, it was the hottest year on record.

But 2023 was also a year of progress on several environmental fronts in New Jersey, with action to advance environmental justice, slow loss of native biological diversity, and make urban areas greener. Here are some highlights of the year past, and a look ahead at 2024.

More Trees for Cities – One big environmental win in 2023 was the concerted plan to plant thousands of new trees in New Jersey’s urban areas, including Trenton, Newark and Camden. Trees sequester heat-trapping carbon from the atmosphere, helping to slow climate change. Trees also filter pollutants from the air, reduce the urban “heat island” effect, and provide flood protection by soaking up rainfall. Funding for urban tree plantings was derived from private, city and state funds, and in the future will come from revenue generated by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), as well as from federal grants under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Land Preservation Funding – New Jersey’s farmland preservation program celebrated the protection of its 250,000th acre last summer, a major success. But the state’s ultimate goal is to preserve double that amount, meaning funding for land protection will be needed for years to come. Unfortunately, New Jersey’s farmland and open space preservation efforts took a hit in December, when a Corporate Business Tax (CBT) surcharge expired, which will reduce funding for state open space and farmland preservation programs by more than $400 million over the next decade. Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Legislature should reinstate the surcharge in 2024.

Flood Protection – Climate change is making New Jersey warmer and wetter. Because of the strong likelihood of more frequent and intense rainfall in the coming decades, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) adopted an Inland Flood Protection Rule that took effect in July 2023. The new rule raises flood plain elevations by two feet, making it harder to build in areas near rivers and streams. As a result, new construction will be higher, drier and safer for residents.

Controlling Invasive Plants – Introduced plants from other regions of the world pose a serious threat to New Jersey’s biodiversity. In December, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly unanimously approved a bill to help control invasive species. To become law, the bill must be signed by Gov. Murphy by Jan. 18. The bill would prohibit the sale, distribution, import, export or propagation of an initial list of 30 invasive species without a permit from the Department of Agriculture. It would also establish a permanent New Jersey Invasive Species Council. While not comprehensive, the bill is an encouraging first step.

Environmental Justice – In 2023, new rules took effect to implement New Jersey’s landmark Environmental Justice Law, signed by Gov. Murphy in 2020. For years, New Jersey’s communities of color and low-wealth populations have borne the brunt of environmental contamination. The new rules will help protect these communities from hosting a disproportionate share of polluting facilities, such as landfills and medical waste incinerators. The law requires state agencies to consider the cumulative effects of pollution – not just the impacts of any single facility – when deciding whether to permit new or expanded facilities that pollute. This is a major win for environmental justice advocates.

Native Land Returned – All of New Jersey once was inhabited by Native Americans, and 2023 saw two successful efforts to return important lands to Indigenous people. In March, a sacred site in the Ramapo Mountains straddling the New Jersey-New York border was purchased by the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, then transferred to the Ramapo Munsee Land Alliance, a nonprofit formed by the Ramapo Munsee Lunape Nation. In August, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and partners helped the nonprofit Native American Advancement Corporation buy 63 forested acres in Salem County. The land is the ancestral home of the ancient Cohanzick people, part of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation.

New Trenton Park – 2023 saw the first steps toward creating a long-promised park in downtown Trenton. New Jersey’s 2024 fiscal year budget contains a $3 million appropriation for the design and engineering of Capital Park, an inviting green space that will serve Trenton residents while attracting visitors. The budget appropriation is an overdue step toward greening the Capitol Complex neighborhood and connecting assets, including, the State House and Annex, State Library, State Archives, State Museum and Planetarium, Old Barracks Museum, War Memorial building, and Petty’s Run archaeological site.

Of course there were also many important environmental challenges that were not fully addressed or resolved in 2023.

Off-Road Vehicles – From city streets to environmentally sensitive natural areas, the illegal use of off-road vehicles (ORVs) is plaguing communities and public land. Many forests, parks, wetlands and waterways have been damaged. In an attempt to address uneven enforcement of laws regulating ORVs, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a guidance document last spring encouraging agencies to get tougher. In addition, the NJDEP has just created a new vehicle access plan showing where registered motor vehicles can be driven legally in Wharton State Forest, New Jersey’s largest piece of public land. The plan will be made public for comment at an open house on Jan. 24. While good first steps, illegal riders of unregistered vehicles are still posing severe safety risks everywhere and causing far too much damage to extremely rare flora and fauna.

Warehouse Sprawl – For the past several years, New Jersey has been in the midst of a warehouse construction boom, with communities often taken by surprise by proposals for enormous projects that threaten prime farmland or would increase pollution in already overburdened communities. Several bills have been proposed to help municipalities get a better handle on warehouse siting. However, no action was taken so this issue should be a priority for the Legislature’s 2024-25 session.

Forest Stewardship – A state Senate-appointed Forest Stewardship Task Force reached broad agreement on steps needed to better protect and manage New Jersey’s public forestlands, but 2023 ended with no action by the Legislature to put the group’s recommendations into action. It is critical that the Legislature pass comprehensive forest legislation in 2024, to ensure our forests continue to combat the climate crisis as carbon sinks, provide clean air and water, and support diverse species of plants and animals.

Environmental Destruction – One bad piece of environmental news in 2023 was the destruction of approximately 15 acres of protected wetland forest at the state’s Glassboro Wildlife Management Area. An agency within the NJDEP bulldozed thousands of mature trees that had provided habitat for numerous rare animal species and two endangered plants, causing illegal upheaval of wetland soils, in order to try to create early successional habitat for a game bird, the American woodcock. While the NJDEP has acknowledged the violation and is planning to restore the site, it has still not shared restoration plans with the public or announced measures to prevent this type of situation from happening again.

Please continue to make your voices heard in 2024 on the need to address these issues affecting our environment and public lands!

For more information on 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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