In the largest preservation deal in six years, the state and various partners have agreed to acquire more than 2,200 acres of watershed land in the New Jersey Highlands.
The $5.1 million acquisition by the Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Highlands Council, and nonprofit groups will preserve 2,218 acres of rolling woodlands in Sussex County known as the Hudson Farm properties.
The deal, in the works since 2004, led to an initial acquisition of 200 acres in Byram Township five years later. The most recent purchase will protect forests, miles of streams, and hills on land at the headwaters of the Musconetcong River.
“This is one of the largest state-coordinated preservation efforts in New Jersey in years,’’ said Ray Bukowski, assistant commissioner for natural and historic resources at the DEP.
The acquisition of the conservation easements for the properties is funded by $2.2 million from the Green Acres program, $2 million from the Highlands Council, and $885,000 from the Land Conservancy of New Jersey and the William Penn Foundation through the Open Space Institute, with matching grants from Green Acres.
Mountaintops, streams, and ponds
The property includes 16 different mountaintops, 17 miles of stream banks, and nine different ponds in Byram Township, Hopatcong Borough and Sparta Township, according to David Epstein, president of the land conservancy.
“This is a historic easement acquisition in the state,’’ Epstein said. “By acquiring this easement, we have helped protect water quality for millions of residents in two states who rely on the Delaware watershed.’’
The land conservancy’s Hudson Farm project is supported by a $445,000 grant from the Open Space Institute’s Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which seeks to protect water quality in the Delaware River Basin. The basin provides drinking water to 15 million-plus people in four states.
High-quality, core woodlands
“The Hudson Farm property contains some of the last remaining high-quality, core forests in the New Jersey Highlands,’’ said Lisa Plevin, executive director of the Highlands Council. “Preserving these lands from future development ensures habitat protection for several rare, threatened, and endangered species and the preservation of vital watershed lands.’’
The DEP has identified the property as habitat for a number of species, including the state-endangered bobcat, barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, and bald eagle, as well as the state-threatened red-headed woodpecker.
With the most recent acquisition, the total amount of preserved land totals 3,402 acres, or more than 5 square miles, according to Epstein. That includes more than 10 miles of trails, including 4.6 miles of the Highlands Trail, which begins at the Hudson River in New York and extends to Delaware River, he said.
“It’s a rare day when you can protect 8 percent of a watershed with one single transaction,’’ Peter Howell, executive vice president of the Open Space Institute, referring to the Musconetcong Watershed.
“Protecting the unspoiled forests surrounding the Delaware River headwaters is critical if we want to preserve the drinking water of the watershed’s 15 million residents,’’ Howell said.
The state has protected more than 650,000 acres of land through its Green Acres program over the past few decades.