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A Victory for Highlands Preservation

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A Victory for Highlands Preservation
Editorial by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11)
Author of the Highlands Conservation Act

For most of my life, I have lived near the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and have been involved as an elected official in protecting it as well as other open spaces, green acres and water supplies in northern New Jersey. Most notably, and most recently, I have focused my efforts in Congress on protecting the Highlands Region a large swath of land that extends from Connecticut across New York state and northern New Jersey and into eastern Pennsylvania.

Since coming to Congress in 1995, I have fought to secure federal funds for land purchases that along with considerable state, county, municipal and private contributions have helped to preserve key portions of the Highlands, including Sterling Forest, the Upper Delaware Watershed, the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge and the Great Swamp.

While these funds have supported the conservation of vital pieces of the Highlands, we have learned over time that the population living within the boundaries of the Highlands-an area that encompasses more than 2 million acres of critical land and water resources in these four states continues to grow substantially. Not surprisingly, the demand for new housing and other types of development continue to forever alter the vast tracts of forests and open spaces in our region.

A study issued by the U.S. Forest Service in 2002, at my urging, found that from 1990 to 2000, the population within the Highlands increased by 11 percent and that more than 5000 acres of the New York/New Jersey Highlands were being developed each year - two factors that have significantly contributed to making New Jersey the most densely populated state in the nation.

This study reaffirmed that we needed a more strategic Highlands preservation plan. With guidance and advice from our local public officials, broad-based community support and the backing of the Highlands Coalition and like-minded citizens, I determined that legislative action was necessary for the federal government to be a stronger partner for protecting the Highlands.

Before moving forward, first, I recognized that any Congressional action to help preserve the Highlands must respect the interests of municipal, county and state governments, landowners and the public. The federal government should only serve as a helping hand, complimenting already existing public and private efforts to protect the area.

Second, the federal government must be mindful of private property rights by only purchasing open space from willing sellers. The preservation of Sterling Forest was a conservation success story because it offered a specific agreement with landowners that spelled out a clear, achievable timetable and financial schedule for land acquisition. Also, the federal dollars that I have fought for since 1995, and that have been so well matched by state and private contributions, have been forthcoming because it has always been understood that open space would be purchased from owners willing to sell their land.

Following these general principles, I introduced the Highlands Conservation Act two years ago, and recently President Bush signed the bill into law. This Act brings federal recognition to the Highlands as a national conservation priority area. By authorizing $110 million over 10 years to purchase open space from willing sellers, the Highlands Conservation Act offers federal assistance to help preserve the Highlands while continuing to respect the genuine and critically important partnerships between the federal government, state governments and local groups.

In addition to bipartisan efforts at the federal level to protect the Highlands, we cannot forget the diversity of private interests and public officials who have dedicated themselves to helping to preserve this pristine region. I am grateful and incredibly mindful of the early efforts of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, followed by the advocacy of the Highlands Coalition, the Trust for Public Land, the Five County Coalition and others for making it their missions to be strong advocates for protecting our open spaces and water supplies. Our local Freeholders, municipal officials, park commissioners, local environmental commissions and planning board members have also taken it upon themselves to devote tax dollars to protect portions of the Highlands in our own backyards. Efforts to protect the Highlands would not have gotten off the ground were it not for these public servants and their foresight.

The Highlands Conservation Act is a historic achievement and major victory that will greatly strengthen our efforts to protect the region s critical lands, drinking water supplies for 3.5 million New Jerseyans, and recreational lands for the region s 14 million annual visitors. And it is now a national model for what can be accomplished when all sides come together and work cooperatively, in the name of open space preservation.

Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11) represents New Jersey s 11th Congressional District and is the author of the Highlands Conservation Act.

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