There are over 115,000 acres of productive farmland in the Highlands region of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut with 85 percent of the smaller land parcels in the region owned by private, and absentee landowners. Much of the 115,000 acres are tilled and farmed so both the distant owner and local farmer have incentives to protect their soil (or land) while also protecting the Delaware River. The good news is that there is help from local conservation organizations like New Jersey Audubon and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.
The Highlands Region is a corridor of rugged mountain ridges and river valleys with rich soils that encompasses the four states. The Highlands, as residents know, are often characterized by some very rocky areas near the Delaware Water Gap, or densely forested as in Sussex County and Northwest Pennsylvania forests.
Throughout the region are a diversity of habitats used by a wide array of bird species, habitats that are also home to some six federally endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, including the bald eagle, bog turtle, rare bats, and various fish and mussels.
According to studies, every year some 3,000 acres of land are being developed in the Highlands region due to the amazing vistas and proximity to urban centers. The resulting ecological impact threatens the Delaware River watershed and many of the important species found there.
John Parke, stewardship project director for New Jersey Audubon, has been engaged in Highlands work for much of his 13 years with Audubon. His and New Jersey Audubon's target audience is the agricultural community, and some of the private landowners, to create conservation opportunities to restore, enhance, or protect natural resources in the Delaware River watershed.
"In North New Jersey, 85 percent of the land that is farmed is rented to farmers," says Parke. "Meaning, many landowners do not necessarily farm the land they own themselves; however, if the land is farmed by someone else their property could be eligible for farmland tax assessment."
"The landowner has needs, the farmer has needs, and there are conservation and ecological needs on the ground," says Parke, which must be balanced. The riparian buffers New Jersey Audubon is building have helped farmers see the value of conservation in their community, while protecting private landowners' property values.
The National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has provided funding through its Delaware River Restoration Fund, to provide New Jersey Audubon with plant materials, including native plants, such as large trees, and labor at no cost to the farmer or landowners to create buffers.
"Being able to provide these materials and labor at no cost to a landowner or farmer is a big help in educating the public of the value of conservation," said Parke. "Conservation and land preservation organizations were seen as more of a trouble or nuisance to the agricultural producers concerned that our suggestions were going to interfere with their production. You can't blame them for this because farms in New Jersey are relatively small in size." The average farm is about 80 acres in New Jersey, but in the northern part of the NJ Highlands it is just 40- 50-acre tracts.
The fates of farming and improved water quality/habitat in New Jersey are inseparable. If we are to preserve the rural character, heritage, and ecological significance of the region and the natural resources that come with them, such as water resources and habitat, the farming and conservation community must work together to develop innovative strategies to promote economically viable farm communities and conservation goals that highlight the specific ecological benefits that implementing agricultural best-management practices can deliver to a region.
"Gaining trust in the community is important and we need to explain that our offer of partnership and collaboration is not a threat but rather a tool in the toolbox to help the community achieve shared environmental goals," added Parke. "I have been able to use the NFWF funding to give producers seed, as well as native trees, to plant for buffers to water courses. The trees I have been able to provide are very large, ball and burlap size, that have a much better chance of survival than using small seedlings or small bare root trees."
"These trees stand out on the landscape, so a farmer mowing or harvesting his fields is not going to run over these trees accidentally and the deer can't eat them!" he exclaimed. "These are 14-foot-high pin oaks or sycamores."
"John and the stewardship team at New Jersey Audubon bring such exceptional enthusiasm and creativity to delivering real on-the-ground restoration and conservation results," said Rachel Dawson, program manager from NFWF's Delaware River organization. "We're thrilled to see how much they've accomplished."
"NFWF Delaware River Watershed Initiative grants give me a good deal of flexibility to get the job done," said Parke, "and the grants also allow for practices that will benefit not just water quality, but critical wildlife habitat as well.
"The choice of plants is a careful balance," said Parke. "The plantings must help improve water quality and control soil erosion, but also must be compatible with the needs of native species and their habitats."
For example, the use of trees and other woody vegetation, which would typically be used for stream bank stabilization or stream buffer plantings, are not always compatible with some native species habitats, such as that of the federally listed bog turtle or grassland birds.
"With careful planning and consideration of wildlife needs, through the NFWF funding we have been also successful in creating or enhancing habitat for various beneficial insects, reptile, bird, and amphibian species that are part of our natural heritage and help protect the Delaware River watershed," he noted.