LINDEN — Linden’s Beatrice Emma Bernzott was one of 21 New Jersey residents selected from over 1,400 nominees for the “N.J. State Governor’s Jefferson Award.” Bernzott was previously honored by her peers; receiving environmental leadership awards from the New Jersey Environmental Federation and the New Jersey Work Environment Council, as well as being designated a “Harbor Heroine” by the NY/NJ Baykeeper.
Bernzott was the recipient of the Jefferson Award in the PSE&G Environmental Stewardship Category based on her creating outdoor classrooms on the shore, a shipboard Ecotour for children and saving an old growth forest by turning it into Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary.
The city plans to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary today, marking a milestone in the multi-year preservation project. It is located on Range Road and is part of a 95-acre city-owned natural resource and wetland complex.
According to Mayor Richard Gerbounka, “Hawk Rise provides unique open-space recreational activities to not only the citizens of Linden and Union County, but to the entire metropolitan area.”
As executive director of N.J. Concern, Bernzott was a member of the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program and served on the Habitat Committee. Looking for potential habitat sites along the Arthur Kill and the Rahway River when she came upon an old growth forest on the Rahway River. Reliving the experience of that discovery, Bernzott said, “I followed a path to a clearing in the center of the forest, the trees were huge. Looked like they could touch the sky. There was a cool breeze, the rustle of leaves and the twitter of birds. It was like being in a cathedral. I thought what a peaceful place for seniors and veterans to visit and how perfect it would be for youngsters to commune with nature.”
Bernzott claimed that she was inspired to name the area Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary after seeing a Red Shouldered Hawk circling over the Rahway forest.
At the next meeting of the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program, she presented the Rahway River forest for preservation. At subsequent meetings, accompanied by Ralph Strano, who was the city’s Seventh Ward councilman at the time, and Jeff Sias of Linden’s Engineer’s Office, Bernzott distributed binders with pictures of the forest, maps and letters from industrial neighbors and environmentalists in favor of saving the forest. A unanimous vote was cast in favor and the forest was put on the preservation and acquisition map.
While Bernzott was trying to figure a way to get Linden to drop their plan to clear the forest and make it a leaf and grass recycling center, she received a call from then-Mayor John T. Gregorio who was seeking to create more revenue to replace what was lost by industries leaving Linden. Gregorio’s solution was to build a mall on Route One that would necessitate moving the airport to the back of the property. The project was stopped by the Wetland Mitigation Council.
Bernzott suggested using the Rahway forest for Wetlands Mitigation, that way saving it forever and removing the obstacle to build the mall. Bernzott accompanied Sadat, the city’s consultant, and Sias to the Wetlands Mitigation Council meeting. She made a presentation on behalf of saving the forest and using it for the required wetlands mitigation.
On Sept. 15, 1998, Linden City Council passed a Resolution declaring the newly named Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary an urban wildlife refuge. On a sunny day, April 25, 2007, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection officials, Linden City officials and Bernzott assembled at the top of Linden’s landfill overlooking the forest during the official closure of the landfill and future turning of the forest into Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary.
DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson commented on the $1 million dollar fine levied against the City of Linden for past environmental violations. The agreement with the DEP also called for Linden to dedicate $1 million dollars to Hawk Rise Wildlife Sanctuary and said amount would be matched by the DEP.
The ceremonial signing between Linden and the mall developer was held in the airport hangar. Gregorio asked Bernzott to stand and publicly thanked her for making the building of the Mall possible by resolving the wetlands mitigation problem.
Bernzott’s winning streak is continuing as she is one of five New Jersey Governor’s Jefferson Award winners to be invited to attend the Washington D.C. Jefferson Awards ceremonies from June 18-20, 2012.
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