New funding for land preservation in Highlands, New Jersey’s ‘golden goose’

Multimillion-dollar fund for Appalachian range to preserve unbroken wilderness and clean drinking water, improve climate resilience
Credit: (Jim Wright/The Nature Conservancy)
New Jersey Highlands

Last month, preservation efforts in the Highlands region of the state got a multimillion-dollar boost from the Open Space Institute, a national nonprofit that works to protect land throughout the Appalachian range.

The initiative, called the Appalachian Landscapes Protection Fund, aims to raise up to $18 million to conserve 50,000 acres of forest throughout the Appalachian range. Unlike traditional open-space acquisition initiatives, in which the priority is simply to preserve land, this fund will focus on state and local communities, land trusts, and Native American tribes that will “align their conservation goals around climate priorities.”

According to the institute, the fund will also “ease funding requirements for organizations that identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led that are at heightened risk of being negatively impacted by the climate crisis.” Through grants and loans for land acquisitions and conservation easements, the institute says it can leverage an additional $66 million in matching public and private funds.

This approach reflects the shifting winds at the White House, where the Biden administration has put climate change and environmental justice at the front of its agenda. One of Biden’s first executive orders was the “30×30” plan, in which he has committed to putting the United States on a path to conserve at least 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

New Jersey is part of the fund’s mid-Atlantic focus area, where the institute hopes to preserve at least 10,000 acres of forest in the Kittatinny Ridge, Pocono Mountains, and the Highlands. The preservation of these regions, along with the remainder of the Appalachian range’s forests, is considered crucial to the survival of vulnerable and endangered plant and animal species, as well as to the slowing of the devastating impacts of climate change.

A critical source of drinking water for millions

In New Jersey’s nearly 860,000-acre Highlands region, the preservation of forest also means the protection of drinking water. More than 6.2 million people — 70% of the state’s population — rely on water that comes from the Highlands, either from the ground or reservoirs. Many of these residents live in the densely populated urban centers in the northeastern corner of the state.

Newark is one of the greatest beneficiaries of Highlands drinking water. In 1900, facing severe outbreaks of bacterial illnesses due the polluting of the Passaic River, the city’s main source of drinking water at the time, Newark purchased 35,000 acres of land in the Highlands that held several reservoirs.

“Newark has a tremendous interest in protecting water quality in the Highlands, because of their water resource investment there,” said Elliott Ruga, policy and communications director for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

Subsequent decades of explosive population growth and suburban development chewed away at the Highlands’ unbroken tracts of wilderness and threatened the state’s most essential drinking water source. The Highlands Act, passed in 2004, has helped to rein in unchecked development and community planning, though New Jersey’s complex system of home rule often cuts against strategic land conservation efforts.

The Highlands: ‘This golden goose for New Jersey’

“The Highlands is really the most ecologically thriving forest we have,” said Ruga. “It has the largest reserve of biodiversity, and it has water resource production and protection — it’s just this golden goose for New Jersey.”

The Appalachian range, whose spine stretches from Maine to Alabama, holds the world’s largest broadleaf forest. This system provides for one of the country’s most critical carbon sinks, land systems — trees, plants, soils, and waters — that naturally capture and store excess climate-warming carbon dioxide.

“As the most mature forest we have in New Jersey, the Highlands is hugely efficient in absorbing and storing  atmospheric carbon,” Ruga said. “So, it’s tremendously valuable to our climate mitigation strategy.”

A 2011 study by Rutgers University and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which looked at the carbon density of New Jersey’s forests, found that the Highlands are between 50 and 75 years away from peak growth (as of the study’s publication date), meaning they will continue to build carbon capacity for much of the remainder of this century. Soils and organic matter will sequester carbon at increasing rates for even longer.

Credit: (Jeff Burian/The Nature Conservancy)
Johnsonburg Swamp Preserve in the New Jersey Highlands

Interestingly, the study also found that urban forests often had higher carbon densities than rural forests. This finding underscores the importance of even the smallest open space and strategic land conservation efforts in Highlands municipalities where future development is inevitable.

“You also need economic development, so, to me, smart growth planning is the sweet spot,” said Eric Olsen, director of lands and rivers for The Nature Conservancy. “What we’re trying to do is protect 40, 100, 200 acres at a time to build a pattern of protected lands.”

Severe consequences for animal species

The impacts of climate change and haphazard development also mean severe consequences for the Highlands’ animal species.

According to Olsen, the fund’s focus area will boost The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to rebuild the habitat of the state’s endangered bobcat. A highly mobile species that relied on the Highlands as a corridor to reach other areas of the Appalachian range north and south of New Jersey, bobcat numbers were decimated by habitat fragmentation.

Strategically preserving land that facilitates the natural movement of the bobcat, Olsen said, ensures that you are creating open space that benefits the Highlands’ other vulnerable species. “The bobcat is what we call an umbrella species,” he said. “If you protect enough habitat to protect the whole range of the bobcat, all of the other species that live in that habitat that have lesser needs are conserved as well.”

Species that don’t have the ability to move large distances, are also heavily impacted by the fragmentation of development, Olsen said. “They typically have smaller home ranges,” he continued. “So, it’s incredibly important to create connectivity for them to move.” He pointed to salamanders as an example. In the coming weeks, these tiny amphibians will be emerging from the forest floor’s leaf litter to seek out breeding pools — highways and roads can be a major impediment to that journey.

“I like to call the Appalachians a climate-resilient superhighway,” Olsen said. “As a hotspot for biodiversity and carbon reserves, it lights up on all maps. And the Highlands is a core piece of that system.”