Profile: Protecting the Highlands and Its Resources Is Her Top Priority

Coalition’s executive director savors region’s beauty and stresses importance of safeguarding its water supplies

Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
Name: Julia Somers

Hometown: Harding Township

Job: Executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition

Age: 57

What she does: She spearheads the nonprofit coalition’s efforts to protect and preserve the 860,000 acres in the Highlands, the source of drinking water for more than 5 million state residents. The region, encompassing 88 towns in seven different counties, is home to 72 species of endangered, threatened or rare plants and animals in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the state.

How she got into the conservation field: Her neighbor Helen Fenske, a longtime conservationist who eventually rose to become an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Protection, convinced her to get involved in protecting the Great Swamp, an area eventually designated as a national wildlife refuge. She was the executive director of the Great Swamp Association.

Why is the Highlands important? Primarily because of the drinking water it supplies to people in more than 300 municipalities, Somers said. “The Highlands water supply is challenged,’’ she added.

Other challenges facing the Highlands: “The biggest challenge—going back to the 19th century—is land use, which always involves politics,’’ Somers said. The current (Christie) administration “has absolutely no respect for the Highlands Act,’’ she said. To protect the region, it is going to take a lot of good will from the public, according to Somers.

A more optimistic view: “If our friends in the Legislature remain in place,’’ Somers thinks the Highlands will be preserved.

A big boost came with the Legislature’s approval earlier this month of a November ballot question calling for a constitutional amendment earlier that would initially provide initially $70 million a year to preserve open space.

That’s especially significant because state policies give a higher priority to protecting open spaces that safeguard water supply resources.

Her favorite places in the Highlands? “It’s liking asking who is my favorite child (she has four). It is truly an incredible place and you cannot believe that it’s in New Jersey. It’s a very beautiful and special place,’’ Somers said.

What you may not know about her: She was born in Norfolk, England, northeast of London, and grew up in Scotland. She got her first political experience working on a committee in the House of Commons.

How she got here: At 21, she decided she wanted to see a little bit of the world. Five days after arriving in America, she met her future husband, whom she married in 1979.

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