Opinion: The Green Acres Program Turns Fifty — Today

Michael Catania | June 3, 2011 | Opinion
Over the past half-century, Green Acres has protected and preserved some 1.4 million acres of the Garden State

On June 3, 1961, then Governor Robert B. Meyner signed the original Green Acres Bond Act into law. The first of what would become a series of similar ballot questions to be approved by wide margins of voters statewide created the oldest and arguably the most successful state open space preservation program in the nation. Now, 50 years, more than $3 billion, and 10 administrations later, the Green Acres Program has changed the face of New Jersey dramatically for the better.

During the past 50 years, Green Acres has directly preserved more than 650,000 acres of parks, forests, and wildlife management areas from Cape May to High Point, and from the Palisades to Delaware Bay. In addition, the state farmland preservation program, which has also been funded by a number of the Green Acres Bond Acts, has permanently protected almost 200,000 acres of some of the best farmland in the Garden State.

Beyond these direct state efforts, Green Acres has also helped all of our 21 counties, most of our 566 municipalities, and many of our nonprofit organizations preserve many additional acres. All told, we now have some 1.4 million acres of preserved lands out of the total of some 4.8 million acres in the state. That means that a staggering 29 percent of our land is now permanently preserved, a statistic that rivals efforts in Costa Rica and other places known for setting land aside. But unlike Costa Rica, more than 31 percent of our land is already developed, and the state is facing complete build-out within the next generation. That means there is a genuine “race for open space” going on to determine the future of the remaining 2 million acres that make up the Garden State.

The Green Acres program has given us athletic fields, nature areas, trails, historic sites, pocket parks, substantial state forests and wildlife management areas. It has also provided us with cleaner water and air, better health, lower property taxes, and a whole range of other services ranging from flood control to carbon sequestration, as well as convenient and multiple locations where we can simply find a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life.

In so doing, Green Acres has become one of the most effective bipartisan programs ever created. It is hard to find a community — from our largest cities to our most rural areas — where the quality of life has not been improved by a park or a preserved farm. That is probably why voters have always supported public questions to provide more funding for Green Acres by a wide margin. It is also why voters in all 21 counties and almost half of our municipalities have agreed to increase their property taxes to provide local funds to match state Green Acres dollars.

To his credit, Governor Christie has recently approved the release of Green Acres bond funds from the 2009 Green Acres Bond Act, in recognition of the fact that, even in tough economic times, additional investments in open space and farmland preservation make sound economic sense and pay strong dividends to current and future generations. But those funds will be depleted next year, and it is unlikely that elected officials will want to borrow more money to keep this landmark program going.

It is both hard to imagine and even scarier to contemplate what New Jersey would look like without the Green Acres program. As the most densely populated state in the nation, we certainly have our share of sprawl and other problems with traffic and the whole range of issues that come with overdevelopment. While preserving land does not necessarily prevent any of these problems, it is abundantly clear that all of these problems would be far worse without the preservation efforts of the past 50 years.

Over the prior half-century, the Green Acres Program has been the solid and dependable foundation upon which virtually all public and nonprofit land conservation here in the Garden State has been built. In addition to its direct accomplishments Green Acres also has provided the seed funding for the broader conservation community, enabled literally thousands of successful transactions and served as the glue that held together virtually every public-private open space partnership in the past several decades.

But the job is not yet done. Despite our remarkable successes, we still have not preserved enough land to safeguard our drinking water; provided enough recreation opportunities for our growing population, saved farming as a viable industry, or maintained critical habitat for a wide variety of species. And that is precisely why the many supporters of the Green Acres program have been calling for a stable source of funding to continue this popular and effective program, so that preservation can keep pace with development and so our children and grandchildren will inherit a healthy environment.

So happy birthday, Green Acres! And many thanks to you, Governor Meyner, for your foresight in creating this incredible program, which is truly your lasting legacy.