by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
New Jersey’s Green Acres Program celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. This highly successful program is the longest continuously-running, state-supported open space program in the nation – a testament to the foresight of those who established it and to countless New Jersey voters who voted yes for open space preservation in the face of aggressive development, rising property taxes and a rollercoaster economy.
In the 1950s, this state we’re in was a vastly different place. Land and parks seemed plentiful. But then-Governor Robert B. Meyner grew concerned about the pace of development in the Garden State. His administration drafted legislation authorizing the sale of $60 million in bonds to fund open space preservation. In the November 1960 election – at the same time John F. Kennedy became president – nearly 60 percent of voters said yes.
Governor Meyner signed the first Green Acres bond act on June 3, 1961. Almost 97,000 acres of land were protected with that first bond measure, including 10,000 acres for Wawayanda State Park in Sussex County, nearly 5,000 acres for the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area in Monmouth and Mercer counties, and 3,000 acres of cranberry and blueberry fields in the Pine Barrens of Burlington and Ocean counties, now part of Brendan Byrne State Forest.
But the future of the new program was not certain. There were few environmental programs; even the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (which now administers Green Acres) wouldn’t be created for another nine years.
But, again and again over the years, New Jersey voters supported Green Acres. In the last 50 years, approximately 650,000 acres of open space have been directly protected by Green Acres, and hundreds of outdoor recreational facilities have been built or improved in every New Jersey county and most municipalities.
Green Acres has inspired other states, counties and towns. Today it’s common for states to have a conservation fund of some type.
The proliferation of open space funds reflects, in part, the impact that popular and successful programs like Green Acres have had on our thinking. What was novel in the 1960s – that the state should purchase open space, farmland, natural areas and historic sites on behalf of the public and hold them in public trust for future generations – is now fundamental in today’s Garden State, where sprawl development has stretched natural resources to the breaking point.
And, as our understanding of the link between open space, healthy living, lower healthcare costs and the value of natural services (like flood control, water- and air-filtration) continues to grow, the wisdom of those who first framed and voted for Green Acres becomes more and more profound. Where would the Garden State be if we were celebrating Green Acres’ 10th anniversary, rather than its 50th?
Find out more about Green Acres at its anniversary website, www.nj.gov/dep/ga50. The anniversary slogan is “It’s All Yours.” And it really is – voters have authorized over $3 billion in 13 Green Acres bond measures over the years!
Check out your land for yourself at dozens of events planned throughout the year at Green Acres funded properties. Or, download a beautiful new map of New Jersey’s open space from the website. If you like taking photos, enter the photo contest by submitting your pictures of Green Acres parks, forests and preserves.
Don’t forget, though, that New Jersey still has two million acres of natural lands, farms, meadows, forests and wetlands that remain unprotected. There’s still much work ahead for Green Acres, and we still need a stable source of funding to keep up the great work started by Green Acres 50 years ago.
If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s (NJCF) website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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