After six decades saving space in NJ, Green Acres program recalibrates

NJ’s land preservation program marks 60th anniversary, plans new focus on climate, environmental justice
Credit: (NJDEP)
Holly Farm, with its tract of woods and open fields, was acquired from Atlantic City Electric in 2019. The property is in Cumberland County.

New Jersey’s biggest land-preservation program has permanently protected 15% of the state’s land in the last 60 years, state officials say, and it is now emphasizing climate resilience and environmental justice when it acquires new properties.

Green Acres, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s program to preserve land for environmental quality and recreation, celebrated its 60th birthday on June 3 with an event that drew around 80 public and private land-preservation professionals to a recently acquired site in rural Cumberland County.

Through purchase or donation, the program acquires land under threat of development. It also preserves areas of special environmental importance, or that are of recreational value, especially in dense urban areas. As climate change transforms land use along coastlines and rivers, and as environmental justice becomes a bigger policy priority, Green Acres is adjusting its focus toward those two areas.

“A lot of our decisions are based on making sure that people who live in overburdened communities can get more green space to balance out some of the burdens that they face,” said the program’s director, Martha Sapp, in an interview.

At the same time, Green Acres is devoting increasing attention to climate resilience though its Blue Acres program, which buys and demolishes groups of flood-prone homes from willing sellers, and turns their land into open space that is used as a buffer to protect remaining homes from the rising seas and bigger storms that come with climate change.

Sapp said Blue Acres will be applying to the federal government for additional funding that would allow it to buy more vulnerable properties. “There is a great need for more buyouts and to restore the land to accept more floodwaters,” she said.

Since it began in 1995, Blue Acres has purchased about 1,000 properties, most of which were acquired with the help of federal funds after Superstorm Sandy devastated large parts of the Shore in 2012.

Outdoor recreation, conservation statewide

By pursuing land for both outdoor recreation and conservation, Green Acres has acquired a wide range of properties ranging from Liberty State Park in north Jersey to Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area in South Jersey, and the 1,400-acre Holly Farm property near Millville, where the anniversary event was held.

Holly Farm, with its tract of woods and open fields, was acquired from Atlantic City Electric in 2019 because of its location between two creeks, and its status as a haven for numerous scarce species of plants, birds and animals including the joint-vetch (a rare plant), the red-headed woodpecker, and the dotted skipper butterfly.

“We did consider other uses for it but when you consider the ecologically significant nature of this property, it seemed to us that it was the best use of this property going forward, to put it in the hands of the state,” said David Velazquez, president of Pepco Holdings, the parent company of Atlantic City Electric. He said there had been discussion about building a new power plant on the site.

Conservation partners of Green Acres include the Nature Conservancy, whose New Jersey director, Barbara Brummer, said she aims eventually to donate other parcels near the Holly Farm property to the state to create a much bigger contiguous tract of protected land.

Although the Nature Conservancy lands are already protected, and have easements that prevent development, the state has more resources to manage the lands in the long term, and so they will eventually become part of the Cumberland County property, Brummer said.

“This was a key parcel that tied together some of these other large parcels that we own in the area, and we’re looking to donate those to the state so we have a huge area — 50,000 acres that belongs to the state,” she said. “That’s our goal.”

Second-biggest percentage of protected land in US

Statewide, acquisitions of some 700,000 acres by Green Acres and private conservation groups together total about 1.6 million acres, Sapp said. That’s around a third of New Jersey’s total land area of some 5.5 million acres, the second-biggest proportion of protected land of any U.S. state.

Credit: (Jon Hurdle)
Green Acres director Martha Sapp, third from left, and other officials celebrated the 60th anniversary of the DEP’s land-preservation program at Holly Farms, a protected parcel in Cumberland County.

At the same time as buying major parcels like Holly Farm, Green Acres also pursues much smaller lots in densely populated areas where they can offer disproportionate benefits to the public, Sapp said.

“We’ve primarily focused on where people live in the urban part of our program, so we’ve put parks where they are so badly needed, and where a tiny parcel can serve so many people,” she said.

The program’s biggest challenge remains the price of land, which is higher in New Jersey than in many other states. Even though Green Acres has been able to buy at attractive prices from owners who value the natural environment, its dollars don’t go as far as they would in many other states, Sapp said.

Purchases of valuable parcels may also be held up if they are in former industrial sites that need cleaning up. In those cases, “we wait patiently” until a site is remediated and ready to transfer to state ownership, she said.

Whatever the nature of targeted lands, they will be used to the public benefit when they become public property. “When people see the Green Acres sign, they know it’s their park, their forest, their backyard,” Sapp said. “They can enjoy it and protect it.”