Maureen Ogden on preserving New Jersey’s open space

Maureen Ogden is co-chair of New Jersey’s Keep It Green Campaign, an organization that works to secure funding to protect the state’s clean water, natural areas, farmland, parks and historic sites. Keep It Green is a coalition of more than 150 organizations – from sportsmen’s groups and environmental organizations to affordable housing and urban park advocates – whose mission is to preserve New Jersey’s open space and clean water. Ms. Ogden spoke with EarthSky’s Beth Lebwohl.

Why is it important for people to preserve New Jersey’s open space?

The water we drink is cleansed by the earth beneath us. The air we breathe is purified by the green plants surrounding us. Our very existence depends on the harmony of the natural cycle. So in seeking to preserve New Jersey’s natural heritage, we need to feel a real sense of urgency, as though our very lives depended on it, because they do.

Image Credit: Pam Thier, Green Acres Program

New Jersey has had a long history of strong bipartisan support for open space and farmland and historic preservation. Can you give us some background?

It really started after World War II. In the late 1940’s, the population increased greatly and the suburbanization of New Jersey occurred rapidly. Our farmland and our countryside beyond the cities and towns was disappearing before our eyes as it was gobbled up by housing developments, shopping malls and offices. It was in reaction to this loss of open space that voters enthusiastically supported in 1961, 50 years ago, our first Green Acres bond issue.

Today, we know it was our smallest bond issue, but the 60 million preserved 100,000 acres. We were on our way to saving open space in New Jersey. Over the past 50 years, the legislature and voters have enthusiastically supported 12 bond issues totaling two and a half billion dollars to preserve open space, farmland and historic sites.

Greater Newark Conservancy

Given the difficult economic and fiscal climate New Jersey is facing, how can the state afford to invest in preservation efforts right now?

It’s really important to take a long view. In other words, what do we want our state to be like in the future? We are in difficult economic times, but I don’t believe and I don’t believe voters either do, that it’s time to retreat from our goal of preserving 40 percent of New Jersey. In actual numbers, it’s not so large becauseNew Jersey is small. It’s only five million acres. So when we’re talking about preserving 40 percent in its natural condition, we’re talking about preserving two million acres.

At this time, we are about three-quarters of the way towards our goal, having preserved almost a million and a half acres. A very recent poll shows that New Jersey voters are as enthusiastic today as they were when times were better 10 years ago about preserving open space. In other words, they are still at a percentage of roughly 62 saying, yes, we have to continue to preserve open space.

We realize with the tremendous density of our population, if we continue to lose open space, that it might become almost not a place that we would want to live in and we don’t want that to happen. Therefore, we have to have this goal, which we established in the late 1990s, of preserving up to 40 percent.

Can you give us some examples of why additional funds are needed for land preservation efforts in New Jersey?

What’s happening throughout the state, is that we have preserved land but increasingly we’re finding that there are some key areas that are at risk of the being developed if we don’t preserve them. For instance, in the pinelands recently, through the good efforts of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, 10,000 acres, the Franklin Parker Preserve, was saved. It’s surrounded by five state parks, and was a hole in the donut that was at risk of being lost. If it had been developed, uh, it would have really degraded the land, the five state parks around it, as habitat for natural species and recreation for people who live here in New Jersey. Funding from Green Acres together with dollars from counties, towns and non-profits is critically needed to buy these donut holes while the opportunity still is there.

Tell us about the Garden State Preservation Trust. What is it and what has made it successful?

When I was in the legislature, I sponsored three bills to come up with a stable source of funding to buy Green Acres. I wanted a stable source of funding because it was much more expensive to have the bond issues. Those that were trying to save land never knew when the bond issues would pass and so they couldn’t plan on it. Another key thing was if we had stable funding, we could make a down payment and then spread out the rest of the cost over a period of time.

Bayview Park, Perth Amboy, Middlesex County

With the Green Acres bond issues, we always had to pay the entire cost of buying the land at the time that we purchased it. This is contrary to any way that we buy anything really big, like a house or a car, where we make a down payment and then over a period of years, we pay it off.

The Garden State Preservation Trust came about from hearings that I held as chair of a council to evaluate the need to preserve more open space and to come up with a source of funding to do so. After we had held these hearings over a period of at least 18 months, we made recommendation to the governor to preserve another million acres and to come up with a stable source of funding.

What was finally approved was that we would dedicate 98 million from the sales tax revenue for 30 years. In the first ten years, the money was going to be used to actually make the down payments on the land. Then in the next 20 years, until 2029, we would have the revenue bonds that would be paying off the owners of the land on an installment basis, just the way one pays for houses or cars.

To learn more about saving New Jersey’s open spaces and historic places visit Garden State Preservation Trust.

November 22, 2011

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