The state is embarking on an ambitious project to restore 240 acres of an interior section of Liberty State Park into a mosaic of salt marshes, wetlands, forests, and grasslands.
The Department of Environmental Protection project, involving nearly 20 percent of the park closed off to the public for decades because of contaminated fill in low-lying areas, will eventually costs tens of millions of dollars, mostly funded by past settlements with polluters.
Park advocates and conservationists, who have long clashed with the Christie administration over the state’s most-visited park, primarily over efforts to privatize the grounds, hailed the restoration effort.
“The natural restoration of the 240-acre interior section of Liberty State Park will be one of the greatest urban natural restorations anywhere, ever,’’ said Greg Remaud, deputy director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said the work will begin the long-overdue restoration of an area that lies at the heart of the park, but has been off limits to the public behind a chain-link fence.
“The work we are beginning will transform this area into a mosaic of ecosystems that will be utilized by the millions of visitors who come to Liberty State Park each year, and will attract wildlife in one of the more urbanized parts of New Jersey, Martin said.
The project, building on design work already completed by the DEP, will initially focus on restoring wetlands to a 23-acre portion of the park. Trails will be connected to the existing trail system and to the adjacent Liberty Science Center.
The latest restoration plan follows almost two decades of battles to convert the property into various commercial and private ventures, including a golf course and waterpark.
“The plan will make the park an even greater, local, state, and national treasure, and be an international model for urban nature restoration — a breathtaking natural area for people’s nature experiences and for wildlife,’’ said Sam Pesin, president of Friends of Liberty State Park.
The project’s other phases will restore another 217 acres by creating new salt marsh, capping contaminated soil, and planting trees and grasses to establish forested and grassland areas.
The funds for the work are largely derived from natural resource damages settlements secured by the state from polluters, initiated during the time Bradley Campbell led the DEP. The Christie administration failed to initiate any such lawsuits during its eight years.
“This is New Jersey’s great urban park, and it will be made only greater through this habitat restoration effort, which will help visitors better understand and appreciate nature,’’ said Mark Texel, director of the DEP’s Division of Parks and Forestry.