For more than a half a century, New Jersey has invested billions of dollars creating a public lands system which houses tremendous beauty and biodiversity and should be the envy of every state in the union. It is critical to our society to have a well-funded and well-managed park system.
However, New Jersey's State Parks, Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, and Natural Areas have become neglected. Natural resource and law enforcement staff have been reduced due to inappropriate budget cuts, natural resource inventories and protection plans are not being implemented, and natural beauty is becoming spoiled by destructive activities that undermine ecological health, the public trust, and our previous investments.
“The public relies upon these state resources for emotional and physical well-being. COVID showed us the great value of open space where people feel safe and rejuvenated. Resources devoted to properly managing state parks and forests is just as important as acquiring additional lands,” states Jaclyn Rhoads, Ph.D., Assistant Executive Director of Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance contracted with Michael Van Clef, Ph.D., of Ecological Solutions LLC., to conduct an assessment of New Jersey's public lands management. Dr. Van Clef earned his Ph.D. in ecology from Rutgers University and has over 25 years of experience in land stewardship, planning and research, working extensively in the evaluation and management of rare and invasive species and deer management. He has consulted with over 30 organizations in New Jersey including the NJ Invasive Species Council for which he prepared the New Jersey Strategic Management Plan for Invasive Species.
The combination of reduced staffing and increased lands requiring management is severely stressing the park system. Some have said that ‘collapse’ is inevitable and these trends are demoralizing remaining staff.
The result of Dr. Van Clef's work is the New Jersey State Lands Management Report released today, which provides a detailed look at the state's public lands and the resources allocated for management and protection of those lands. An excerpt from the report states:
“New Jersey parks face significant challenges. Staffing has decreased by 28 percent since 2006, leading to reduced services including seasonally staffed or closed nature centers, swim areas closing early, and delayed storm cleanup. There are now only 15 Park Superintendents responsible for over 50 parks. For naturalists and historians, there are now less than ten full-time staff across the entire system, which leads to an undervaluing of parks by the public. The ratio of Park Service staff to visitors is 1 to 36,000 and there is one Forest Service staff for every 5,500 acres of land. In addition, there has been a 13 percent increase in acquired park acreage since 2008. The combination of reduced staffing and increased lands requiring management is severely stressing the park system. Some have said that ‘collapse’ is inevitable and these trends are demoralizing remaining staff. It is certain that the integrity of park resources has been significantly reduced.”
“New Jersey’s investment in public lands has given us 389 State Parks, Forests, Historic Sites, Natural Areas, and Wildlife Management Area covering 882,000 acres across the State, representing an incredible inventory of accessible opportunities for healthy, outdoor recreation,” said Elliott Ruga, Policy & Communication Director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “The pandemic has reminded all of us of how critical our parks and forests are to our health and quality of life. If we care about the places we value, we must maintain them and we must enforce the rules that protect these lands and the safety of people that use them.”
There is hope for the future. The report suggests that the vision for state parks and forests is to provide a model of stewardship for natural, recreational, educational, and historic resources that provides broad public benefit. The three primary recommended goals include
Establish New Jersey Statewide Parks Officially Recognized Friends Organization (“Statewide ORFO”),
Increase State Staffing and Improve Efficiency through Partnerships, and,
Improve Mitigation of Threats through better enforcement. Complete realization of the vision and goals for state parks can only be met through efforts of public and private partnerships, driven by deep appreciation of the natural world and historic resources.
There are thousands of volunteers waiting to help and dozens of non-profit organizations want to provide support. NJDEP can have these resources at their fingertips by agreeing to work with a newly formed friends organization.