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NJTV Feature: Working to Preserve Open Space to Protect Drinking Water

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Working to Preserve Open Space to Protect Drinking Water

By Michael Hill

“On the other side is the Napolitano property which we preserved in 2006. It’s about 200 acres,” said Barbara Heskins Davis, vice president of programs for the Land Conservancy of New Jersey.

Davis lists the open spaces her Land Conservancy of New Jersey is preserving in and around the Paulinskill Lake Wildlife Management Area — a huge chunk of Sussex County in the northwest corner of the state.

What’s at stake: protecting the wildlife and protecting the drinking water to residents of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“It’s really critical that we protect the most important lands for water quality and what we need is forests. And if you look behind me here, you see that leaf litter on the ground? That’s going to slow down the water and really filter it out and make it as clean as we need,” said Abby Weinberg, research director of the Open Space Institute.

These advocates insist what’s happening in Sussex — preserving land — is more cost effective than industrial ways of treating water. The proof, they say: the Open Spaces Initiative. Part of that draws on private donations to acquire land.

“We are making great progress and the William Penn Foundation has given the Open Space Institute $9 million to help make sure that happens,” Weinberg said.

“The challenge is with the appraised value of the land, making sure the land owner gets equity for their property. And we found that when we negotiate with the land owners and we’re able to provide them that equity so they see us as a good resource to be able to look to sell their property and in this case for preservation. I have to say that sometimes it comes down to a decision of the heart. A lot of the people live here because they love it here and they want to see that love and that legacy continue,” Davis said.

Taxpayer dollars go in Sussex County’s Open Space Trust Fund. It allows the county to buy and maintain land for preservation and recreation.

Here in Sussex County, the support for protecting the water supply could be described as overwhelming based on what happened at the polls.

“We want to make sure that people connect to nature as well. We want to make sure that the open spaces are visible, that people can get out into them and enjoy them and see where their tax dollars are going. In the last Sussex County referendum we received over 70 percent support in favor of continuing the open space program,” said Sussex County Open Space Committee Chair Cliff Lundin.

Environmentalists say protecting the water supply competes with erosion, pollution and runoff. Add government policy to the equation.

“In order to really protect our clean water, we’re going to have to make sure there’s these public-private partnerships and it’s going to happen at the local level. We know that the erosion of our regulatory controls are at risk and unless we can ensure that we have places that are going to function regardless of regulatory change in filtering our clean water, we’re really in danger,” Weinberg said.

The efforts here and the success of acquiring thousands of acres of land for preservation raise the question of whether Sussex is a model for the rest of the state.

“This plan? Yes, Absolutely,” Lundin said.

“If you don’t invest now, it’s not going to be here,” Davis said