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How the Garden State has prioritized water & ecological diversity despite threats from civilization
Lifestyle

How the Garden State has prioritized water & ecological diversity despite threats from civilization

New Jersey may be known for its highways, beaches, and dense population—but it’s also remarkably ecologically diverse.

With 800,000 acres of pinelands, coastal wetlands, barrier islands, and “farming belt,” New Jersey’s treasures deserve attention.

The state is also a significant water source, providing water for up to 15 million people. The Pine Barrens are home to the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, one of North America’s biggest aquifers.

But, like most natural spaces in the US, these cherished spaces are under constant threat of development, invasive species of plants and animals, climate change, and industrial pollution.

However, environmental pioneers have planned strategically and cooperatively to combat these threats, showing how the human ecosystem and plant and animal ecosystems can survive and thrive together.

“By preserving land, you can protect habitat—but it needs to be stewarded as well,” says Christine Nolan, Executive Director of South Jersey Land and Water Trust. 

She believes preservation has two functions—to save precious habitats, but also to  prepare those habitats to coexist with the public.

When the pandemic hit, Jersey’s parks and woods were the busiest they’ve ever been, says Nolan. The need for preserved, shared spaces, became even more apparent.

Threats from every direction

A major menace to New Jersey’s green space is, unsurprisingly, good old urban and suburban sprawl, which results in habitat loss and fragmentation.

“The biggest threat will always be the conversion of forest and farmland into housing and subdivision and development because that’s what takes up the most land,” says Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

And the impacts of development are far-reaching: “You are contaminating the water flowing out of that land, downstream,” says Montgomery.

The Pinelands is a mix of forest and wilderness— but also farms, and suburban and urban development—the latter of which have a big impact on the water supply.

“In our region, surface waters are fed by groundwater, not the other way around,” says Montgomery.

Ninety percent of water in a stream is coming up from underneath, and it’s very susceptible to contamination.

“It happens slowly and insidiously over time,” he says. “It doesn’t happen all out once, making it easier to ignore.”

Preservation plans for the Pinelands were written before people understood how watersheds work, says Montgomery. They unknowingly allow for development in areas that should’ve been protected.

There are 5 different water regions in New Jersey, each consisting of thousands of smaller waterways. When pollution occurs in one region, it can contaminate water that flows downstream, affecting thousands of people.

The pandemic and current recession have slowed down development significantly, says Montgomery, though the pressure to develop will never go away entirely.

And in the meantime there are pernicious additional threats.

“The most damaging thing those projects did, was show how easily government agencies can be manipulated by powerful enough backers.”

Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Illegal off-roading vehicles, dumping in the woods, and illegal collection of animals for the pet trade, particularly Northern pine snakes and turtles, are constant problems.

And natural gas pipelines are a ceaseless adversary. Two battles over pipelines have occurred—one in the southern part of the Pinelands and one in the northern part.

“The most damaging thing those projects did, was show how easily government agencies can be manipulated by powerful enough backers,” he says. “You saw agency after agency stamp anything they said.”

The alliance did win some court battles and delayed South Jersey Gas long enough that it eventually went away – but it took six years.

“It was really discouraging, and it showed us that it doesn’t matter what rules say if the wrong people are in charge,” says Montgomery.

New Jersey has earned its name as the Garden State.

The South Jersey Land and Water Trust merged in 2006 (formerly two non-profits, the Federation of Gloucester County Watersheds and the South Jersey Land Trust) to focus on preserving land that borders water, with an emphasis in Gloucester and Salem counties. They work to protect habitats in stream corridors and headwaters, through watershed education and stream assessments. They also organize community cleanups of water bodies, streams, and tributaries.

Habitat protection is another high priority of the trust. Diverse ecosystems mean diverse communities of flora and fauna. South Jersey’s habitats are stopovers for migratory bird populations and provide homes to countless endangered and rare species of animals like the long tail salamander and northeastern beach tiger beetles.

The Trust is working to save the swamp pink, a threatened species of perennial flower that grows in headwaters and forested wetlands of New Jersey, through the swamp pink fence project. South Jersey hosts about 75 percent of the world’s remaining species of the flower.

The trust is also implementing strategies to contend with climate change through greenways—literally, green highways for plants and animals to be able to migrate north as the climate warms. It’s focused on connecting parcels of protected land to each other.

“You have to be strategic,” says Nolan. “Where do we have the most pristine habitat, and how can we connect that greenway?”

It’s great to preserve as much land as possible, she says, but a forest surrounded by development won’t be as healthy as a small protected forest that connects to another small protected forest.

Prioritizing environmental leadership as a state

Though there have been setbacks, New Jersey has had extraordinary environmental leadership. They are miles ahead of other states because of the funding of the Green Acres Program, started by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in 1961 to meet growing recreational and conservation needs. Green Acres protects land, state parks, forests, and historic resources and preserves the state’s water supply quality. With its partners, the program has preserved over half a million acres of open space.

“We have foundations that value land preservation, community groups, and non-profits,” says Nolan, “and when all that comes together it’s really beautiful.”

The survival of every species of wildlife is critical to preserving biodiversity, water quality, and natural history. And it relies on people to steward and protect it.

“We’re fortunate to have a state that values that,” says Nolan.

This story was produced in partnership with CivicStory, and funded by a grant from Spring Point Partners LLC.    

Cover photo: A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher sits perched in a beautiful pink cherry blossom tree in Sewell, NJ. Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash


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Claire Marie Porter
Claire is a freelance journalist and graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on health and science journalism. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Grist, WIRED, and Grid Magazine. When she's not writing, she's turning over logs in the woods or reading Harry Potter with her kindergartner. View all posts by Claire Marie Porter

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