DEP Offers to Purchase Endangered Forest Next to Six Flags Amusement Park

State agency hopes proposal will keep 90 timbered acres from going under the chain saw to make way for solar array

One of the rides at Six Flags Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson Township.
The state wants to buy largely forested land targeted for a huge array of solar systems by its owner–Six Flags Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson Township — and preserve it as open space.

In a letter from the state Department of Environmental Protection last week to Six Flags, the agency said the proposed deforestation is inconsistent with its mission to preserve natural and historic resources.

The solar farm has come under intense criticism from lawmakers, conservationists, and former Gov. Jim Florio because it would clear-cut at least 18,000 trees on land on the edge of the Pinelands and adjacent to the Colliers Mill Wildlife Management Area. The project is also the subject of a lawsuit seeking to block it from a number of environmental groups.

It also conflicts with the Christie administration’s Energy Master Plan, which aims to locate new solar projects on existing buildings, parking lots, brownfields, and properly closed garbage dumps instead of open space.

“We oppose large solar projects that damage or destroy previously undisturbed resources, such as the project you proposed,’’ Richard Boornazian, an assistant commissioner for the DEP, wrote in a letter last Friday to Six Flags.

“Such projects are entirely inconsistent with our mission and with our guidance for solar siting,’’ Boornsian said in the letter.

The agency would use existing Green Acres funds to preserve the property if Six Flags agrees to sell. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Six Flags did not respond to a call for comment.

Larry Hajna,a spokesman for the DEP, said the agency initially expressed concerns about the clear-cutting of the forest around the turn of the year. He said the purpose of the letter is to inquire about the possible acquisition of the land to preserve the 90 acres.

The 21.9-megawatt solar project would be located on 90 acres of land adjacent to the park, which would make the facility largely energy-independent. Instead of clearing the trees, critics of the project argued that the company should put the solar arrays above its 100-acre parking lot — a plan considered by Six Flags but eventually ruled out because of safety concerns and higher costs.

[related]Environmentalists say the forest provides a crucial role in filtering water that flows both to Barnegat Bay and to the Delaware River, which supplies drinking water to 5 million people in the state.

New Jersey has set aggressive targets for promoting renewable energy, mostly ones that have been achieved by the solar industry. At one time, the state was second behind only California for solar installations, but a slump in the sector curtailed development of such systems. Since then, the sector has rebounded, in part due to a bill passed into law and signed by the governor.

With the revival, New Jersey has been inundated with a number of larger solar-farm projects, mostly involving systems that supply electricity directly to the regional power grid.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of the DEP, praised the agency’s proposal to buy the land. “It’s a piece of property that fits into the Green Acres program because it is next to existing open-space properties,’’ he said.

Tittel said the proposed acquisition may be amenable to Six Flags because it would end a public relations problem relating to the clear-cutting of the forest. In addition, the sale of the land would give the company money to offset the cost of putting solar panels over the facility’s parking lot.

“We want them to go green, but we don’t want to do it at the expense of open space,’’ he said.