A Wildlife Corridor, Green but Imperiled

July 8, 2003

"When a tree falls, it's not replaced. That facilitates invasive plant species."

New York Times

By James Gorman


It stretches from the forests of the North to the farmlands in the South, from woodlands where bobcats scream and cerulean warblers warble to lawns where deer and groundhogs graze.

More than 4.5 million people drink water drawn from its aquifers.

Fourteen million people use it each year for recreation, more than visit Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.

Twenty-five million people live within an hour's drive.

It has been mapped, studied and reported on.

Conservationists are trying to preserve as much of it as possible -- and the Forest Service says much of it could be gone in a few decades.

Still, it does not have much of an identity in the public consciousness.

To geologists, it is the Reading Prong, a wide swath of hills and ridges that are thenubs of the ancient Appalachian Mountains, worn down by250 million years of wind and rain and now facing thefinal insult -- having McMansions with 10-acre lawnsbuilt on their flanks.

It is the Highlands region, stretching from northwestern Connecticut through New York and NewJersey and on into Pennsylvania -- about two millionacres of public and private land, developed andundeveloped, dotted with reservoirs and parks, butunder intense development pressure.

Unlike, say, Adirondacks or Berkshires, "Highlands" is not a namethat strikes familiar chords.

The Highlands Coalition, an umbrella organization of over 100 private and publicgroups, is working on the problem.

It is striving for land preservation and for what may be called 'brandrecognition' in another context.

A bill being considered in House and Senate committees may create the first 'national stewardship area.'

Not a national park or a national forest, the Highlands Stewardship Area, if approved, would be a new sort ofpreservation entity created for a region where nowilderness is left, where the sweeping actions thatcreated vast protected parks and forests areimpossible.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, but is vigorously opposed by the New Jersey BuildersAssociation and the National Association of HomeBuilders, calls for spending $25 million -- a year -- for 10years for land conservation and $2 million, a year, tohelp landowners and municipalities with technicaldetails.

Beyond the money, the measure would give national recognition to the Highlands region -- and helpfix the identity of this patchwork quilt of woods andtowns as a single entity in the public mind.

It would also bring unnecessary federal intrusion and bureaucracy into the region, said Stephen H. Shaw, who testified for the builders at a recent Congressional hearing.

Mr. Shaw, past president of the New Jersey association and the owner of Shaw
Built Inc. of Chester, said that the coalition and forest service'sforecasts of development were faulty and that the billtook no account of housing needs.

A third of the population of New Jersey was living in substandard or overcrowded housing, he said in aninterview.

"If we go down this road with blinders on -- only looking at 'preservation' -- our children and grandchildren aren't going to be able to afford to live in this area."

He said that building a house in New Jersey now required the builder to go through about 150permit programs and that he felt there was alreadyadequate protection for water supply and otherenvironmental concerns.

It is no wonder that conservationists and builders have had their eyes on the region.

With constant pressure from metropolitan areas for first and second homes, large, relatively unspoiled areas are obvious targets for development and preservation.

One success for conservationists was the 15-year public and private struggle to create Sterling Forest StatePark in Orange County, near Tuxedo, New York, which includes 18,000 acres.

At one time, developers had planned 13,000 housing units there.

The region has other large undeveloped tracts like the 35,000-acre Pequannock Watershed, protected by the City of Newark, which depends on it for drinking water, and a number of parks.

Yet development is proceeding at a rapid pace in a region hungry for land.

In December, the Forest Service updated a report from 1992, and noted that 5,000 acres of open space were lost each year.

The executive director of the Highlands Coalition, Tom Gilbert, said, "We don't have the luxury of a lot of time in this area."

The Forest Service update, Mr. Gilbert said, "provides a clarion call for protecting the region." It finds that depending on the constraints on building all the available land in the New York-New Jersey section could be developed in 20 to 30 years.

That growth, the report said, would mean a population increase of almost 50 percent, resulting in degraded water resources, lost open space and harm to some threatened and endangered species.

Mr. Shaw in his testimony criticized the modeling methods used to reach these numbers as "replete with assumptions and generalities."

The goals of the coalition are to buy land, educate landowners on managing their properties and lobby for improved regulations on development, to connect large protected blocks of open space and create a contiguous four-state corridor valuable to wildlife and people.

Some 294,000 acres important to water resources remain unprotected, Mr. Gilbert said, and 100,000 of those acres are immediately threatened.

The Highlands effort is characteristic of current conservation programs in that it depends heavily on a particular computer technology, the various sophisticated mapping software generally known as Geographical Information Systems, or G.I.S.

Those techniques translate data into maps, so that forest coverage or population density can be seen at a glance and combined in maps that give an immediate sense of what is occurring in a given area and what may be done.

Michele S. Byers of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation said that larger areas of land were easy to identify.

But G.I.S. technology has helped identify smaller parcels, to connect those larger tracts.

Mr. Gilbert said, "It hasn't been that long that we've had G.I.S. But it's hard to imagine the days when we didn't."

The Forest Service report is full of maps that show who owns open space; which areas have the greatest diversity of species; which are most important for endangered and threatened species; and the location of recreational areas, forests and, perhaps most important, water resources.

Eric Stiles of the New Jersey Audubon Society said that about 60,000 acres in New Jersey are protected because of the water.

A second value is outdoor recreation. The area offers urban and suburban residents a chance to escape into the woods for hiking, canoeing, fishing, hunting, bird-watching and camping.

But the Highlands is also important for wildlife and plants, for maintaining biodiversity in an area under intense growth pressure.

It has a variety of habitats -- forests, rocky summits, rivers, bogs and fens. It provides a long corridor with resting spots for migratory birds.

It includes more than 250 species of endangered animals and plants, including the wood turtle, the timber rattlesnake and the Eastern wood rat.

Mr. Stiles calls it the "biodiversity belt." His area of interest is New Jersey, but the same is true for the whole region.

Although saving land itself is the major task, it is not, of course, the sole challenge for the Highlands. The region also faces natural and unnatural threats, like invasive Asiatic earthworms, Japanese barberry and deer.

A reasonable number of deer, Mr. Stiles said, may be 15 a square mile, although other experts suggest 20. The difference pales next to the reality.

"In some areas, there are 200 deer per square mile," Mr. Stiles said. The deer eat everything, including young trees sprouting up. "When a tree falls," he said, "it's not replaced. That facilitates invasive plant species."

Development pressures never cease, Ms. Byers said, and new difficulties always appear. Conservation efforts never end, either.

She said she thought of her work in terms of her favorite bumper sticker, about the Great Swamp in North Jersey, which has faced more than one challenge.

The sticker reads, "Save the Great Swamp, Again."

She expects continuing, if not eternal vigilance, to be the price of a Highlands corridor.


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