by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
In New Jersey, Highlands forests equal drinking water for over 5 million residents. In addition to the seven counties within the Highlands, nine counties entirely outside the region get at least some of their water from the Highlands.
Highlands forests are not only beautiful, but they work for us! Forests naturally filter and absorb pollutants from the water and make sure it comes out of our taps clean!
New Jerseyans have had the wisdom and foresight to protect Highlands forests, starting with the City of Newark’s purchase of the 35,000-acre Pequannock Watershed back in the early 1900s.
In 2004, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, which created the Highlands Council and charged it with adopting and overseeing a regional plan to protect Highlands forests and water supply.
According to the Highlands Act, the Council is a bipartisan group appointed by the governor, and must represent a “range of expertise, knowledge, or experience in water quality protection, natural resources protection, environmental protection, agriculture, forestry, land use, or economic development.”
After years of work, the Highlands Council’s regional plan is now completed and implementation is underway. To date, 21 towns and two counties have conformed their master plans and zoning rules to the Highlands plan.
Governor Christie is now proposing to replace Highlands Council members whose terms are expiring with his own people, a governor’s prerogative. But the Governor’s slate of nominees threatens to impede future progress and set back protection of the state’s most significant water supply. The Governor’s nominees lack both the balance and the range of expertise required by law.
Several of the Governor’s nominees are avowed opponents of Highlands Act. They have consistently and publically attacked very law the Council is charged with implementing and enforcing! Varying opinions are healthy, but appointing Highlands Act opponents to the Council is a challenge to the mission of the program.
Several of these nominees have been approved by the New Jersey Senate. If the rest of the governor’s slate is approved, the new Council will be able to stop or undermine ongoing Highlands protection efforts. Worse, when the plan itself is reevaluated in 2014, the Governor’s picks will be in position to severely weaken regional master plan goals, standards and programs.
If Governor Christie is truly serious about energizing our state’s economy, he should do everything in his power to protect our water supply! That means putting strong Highlands advocates on the Council.
Citizens who live within the Highlands, as well as the millions who live in suburban and urban communities outside the Highlands, should make their opinions known about the governor’s nominees. Our state legislators in Trenton must be called on to protect the health, safety and will of the people they represent.
Six open slots remain on the Highlands Council. The Senate Judiciary Committee should refuse to consider these nominations until the Governor chooses a balanced slate of individuals who support protecting the Highlands and its water supply.
Please contact your state Senator and ask him or her to help stop the Governor’s anti-Highands Act nominees from being approved for Highlands Council membership, and contact Governor Christie and ask him to nominate a proper balance of candidates in accordance with the law.
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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