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Op-Ed: Open Space as Important as Ever

Preservation must remain a priority for incoming administration

kelly mooij
Kelly Mooij

New Jersey has a proven track record of open-space preservation. With an industrial past and a high population density, as well as the forecasted projection to be the first state to reach “full build out,” preserving our forests, fields, and farms is a straightforward issue that enjoys broad public support.

It is well recognized, for example, that preserving land protects drinking-water supplies and that farmland preservation efforts help to provide availability of Jersey Fresh produce. Thus, the continued preservation of open space should rank as an important priority for the incoming administration.

While the passage of a 2014 ballot measure (supported by 65 percent of New Jersey voters) provides a baseline of sustainable funding to continue open-space, park, farmland, and historic preservation efforts, the story doesn’t end there. Tremendous needs remain and even with the 2014 measure, funding levels are still less than half of what they were at their peak.

Yet it would difficult to find a more strategic approach to comprehensively address New Jersey’s many environmental needs than through our open-space and the following associated preservation priorities.

Acquisition of flood-prone properties: Climate change beats on the doors of our shore communities with every passing storm.

Since its inception in 1995, the Blue Acres program has facilitated the purchase of hundreds of properties, enabling not only impacted families to move away from repeated and dangerous flooding, but also aiding in the absorption of flood waters through restoration of natural habitat and providing increased protection (and retained property values) for other nearby development.

Urban parks: Several of our biggest cities have the fewest number of people within walking distance of a park in the nation. Studies show that living near parks results in an increase in physical activity, which helps to reduce afflictions caused by a sedentary lifestyle such as high-blood pressure, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and stroke. As childhood obesity rates (one in five children) have reached epidemic proportions, access to outdoor and play areas is more crucial than ever. Physical activity also relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Farmland: Thanks to farmland preservation efforts, more than 200,000 acres are now permanently preserved, helping to secure both picturesque vistas and the availability of produce grown right here in the Garden State. While this is a tremendous achievement, it is estimated that the preservation of 350,000 additional acres is needed to secure a sustainable agricultural industry.

Historic preservation: We’re all far too familiar with the frequent state of disrepair of our historical treasures. State inventories show that an investment of $700 million is needed to preserve the cultural heritage that provides the critical connections to our historical past. As the third oldest state in the nation, the past we’re so proud of deserves better than cracked and crumbling buildings and neglected facilities.

Open space: State funds are a starting point to leverage additional funding from federal, county, municipal, nonprofit, and corporate sources, and New Jersey has made a name for itself by permanently preserving roughly 1.2 million acres through this mix of sources. Continued progress could not be more important considering together the Highlands and Pinelands regions provide clean drinking water to 75 percent of the state, yet critical areas lack a preserved status. A continued investment in the Green Acres program will allow not only for the preservation of critical wildlife habitat, but also stewardship resources to better care, through active management, for areas already preserved.

There is no reason — and certainly not an economic one — to abandon or reduce our investment in these programs. For every $1 invested in open-space preservation, there is a $10 return in the form of ecosystem services (such as water purification and flood resiliency).

We cannot take for granted that simply having a base funding source, as provided by the 2014 ballot measure, is sufficient. Now is not the time to check open space off our list. Rather, it is a time to double down and recommit to ensure the legacy New Jersey began is continued and the next administration must bring leadership to this endeavor.

Kelly Mooij is the vice president for government relations for New Jersey Audubon.

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