Commentary

Undoing Environmental Damage With Natural Resource Damages Funds

By MICHELE S. BYERS | Nov 08, 2017

The Daniels Preserve in Gloucester County is a forested oasis whose numerous vernal pools support breeding amphibians. The Hill and Dale Preserve in Tewksbury Township extends from the Rockaway Creek valley up the steep flank of Hell Mountain and provides stream protection and scenic views of the surrounding countryside. The Interboro property, part of the Candace Ashmun Preserve in the Forked River Mountains of Ocean County, is pristine Pine Barrens forest. The quiet and serene Friendship Creek Preserve in Burlington County protects a beautiful tributary of the Rancocas Creek.

What do these properties have in common, besides their natural beauty? All were preserved in perpetuity with the help of natural resource damages funds from the state of New Jersey.

New Jersey law requires companies to clean up their polluted sites and pay for environmental damage to natural resources, defined as “all land, biota, fish, shellfish and other wildlife, air, water and other such resources.”

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Natural Resource Restoration was created in the early 1990s to restore environmental injuries caused by discharges of hazardous substances and other pollutants, and to compensate the citizens of New Jersey for these damages. The fines and penalties are known as natural resource damages.

The authority for addressing damages to the public’s natural resources stems from the Public Trust Doctrine. This common law provides that public lands, waters and living resources are held in trust by the government for the benefit of its citizens.

Natural resource damages funds have been used by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and others to preserve beautiful and ecologically important land throughout the state.

In 2007, the Rancocas Conservancy partnered with NJ Conservation to preserve 226 acres in the Pine Barrens of Tabernacle Township, Burlington County, creating the Friendship Creek Preserve. The property contains the headwaters of Friendship Creek, a tributary of the South Branch of the Rancocas Creek. The preserve is open to the public and is owned and managed by the Rancocas Conservancy.

The 70-acre Darmstadt property in Mullica Township, Atlantic County, along Indian Cabin Creek, was preserved with natural resource damages funds in 2008. NJ Conservation preserved this property, which contains a large Atlantic white cedar swamp as well as an upland forest of pines and oaks. Its preservation helps to prevent fragmentation of the Elwood Corridor, an ecologically critical belt of forest lands connecting the northern and southern regions of the Pine Barrens.

Also in 2008, an additional 63-acre parcel known as the Wharton property was acquired in Atlantic County. The land is open to the public for recreation, including hiking, bird watching and hunting. The property contains a small tributary stream of the Mullica River, an upland forest of pines and oaks, and a wetland “spung” that is a known breeding habitat for Pine Barrens tree frogs.

One of the largest tracts of unbroken forest in southern Gloucester County, the 100-acre Daniels property, was also preserved using natural resource damages funds. NJ Conservation partnered with the South Jersey Land and Water Trust to preserve this land in South Harrison Township, which consists of mixed hardwood forest and forested wetlands dominated by red maple, sweet gum and black gum. Numerous vernal pools provide a breeding habitat for a variety of amphibians. A tributary of Oldmans Creek runs through the property’s southern edge.

When the land was preserved in 2008, former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson noted, “Conservation of this property benefits the region tremendously by protecting ground water supplies, preserving wildlife habitat, and providing a regional hub in a statewide network of protected parcels of open space.”

The 620-acre Interboro property in Ocean and Lacey townships was preserved in 2009 with the help of natural resource damages funds. It’s now part of a 4,000-acre preserve named for Candace McKee Ashmun, one of the state’s leading conservationists and the only remaining original member of the state Pinelands Commission.

Natural resource damages funds also helped preserve part of the Hill and Dale Preserve in Tewksbury Township, Hunterdon County, in 2008. The preserve’s fields drain to a tributary of the Rockaway Creek, part of the headwaters of the North Branch of the Raritan River. Permanently preserving these lands protects water quality in the Raritan River, an important drinking water source.

Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, based in Far Hills, N.J.

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