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Highlands Task Force Presents Action Plan for Preservation of NJ’s Highlands Region
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March 14, 2004 (rt23 news) - (WANAQUE) – Responding to Governor James E. McGreevey’s call for action to preserve one of New Jersey’s greatest natural treasures, the Highlands Task Force today released its report and recommendations to safeguard the Highlands’ diverse natural resources, including the drinking water the area supplies to more than half of New Jersey’s families.

"The Task Force has hit a home run in protecting the critical land that provides clean and plentiful water to half the state’s residents,” said McGreevey. “The recommendations break the decade long logjam to move forward a comprehensive bold protection plan that is reasonable and is tailored to the Highlands.

“I am particularly proud to have the bi-partisan support, including Freeholder Directors from Morris and Somerset Counties, to push forward this important endeavor. I am committed to making the Task Force’s recommendations a reality," said the Governor.

The Governor established the Highlands Task Force through Executive Order on September 19, 2003. The Governor charged the Task Force to provide him within six months recommendations on how best to advance conservation efforts, smart growth, regional planning and water resource protections in the region.

Highlands Task Force members today presented the Task Force’s Recommendations to Preserve New Jersey’s Highlands. The presentation took place at the Wanaque reservoir, a Highlands-based drinking water source that serves one million people and was designated by Governor McGreevey as a Category One waterbody, providing it the state’s highest level of protection.

“The Task Force recommendations will fulfill Governor McGreevey’s commitment to ensure that future generations of New Jersey families enjoy the clean drinking water and recreational areas that the Highlands provides today,” said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who is also a co-chair of the Task Force. “I thank the Task Force for recognizing that time is of the essence, and I am grateful for the Legislature’s commitment to consider the legislative recommendations on an urgent basis.”

"For far too long, the Highlands region of our state has not received the attention it needed and deserved - until now," said Community Affairs Commissioner Susan Bass Levin, co-chair of the Task Force. "Governor McGreevey made the protection of this pristine area one of his top priorities, and today’s announcement further establishes his legacy of environmental protection and smart growth planning. With these recommendations, we will protect our drinking water, save precious open space and preserve this unique region for generations to come."

“The Task Force’s recommendations are comprehensive, balanced and representative of a wide range of perspectives,” said Highlands Task Member and Lebanon Township Mayor Eileen Swan. “I commend Governor McGreevey, Commissioner Campbell, Commissioner Bass Levin and their staffs for their leadership in the creation of these recommendations, which will go a long way to benefit the residents of New Jersey.”

The Task Force’s recommendations reflect its analysis of technical reports by Rutgers University, the U.S. Forest Service, the Task Force and State agencies and public input. The Task Force sought public input by soliciting comments from the web site (, conducting a Save the Highlands public opinion survey and taking comments at hearings in Morristown and Mahwah from the general public and planning representatives from Highlands counties and municipalities.

The results of the Save the Highlands survey demonstrate the public’s overwhelming support for regional planning for the preservation of the Highlands. Almost 96% of respondents answered “yes” when asked if the State should pass legislation to require regional planning in the Highlands.

“The public has told us that this is what they want,” said Task Force member and Morris County Freeholder Director Jack Schrier. “As one of their elected representatives, I trust it is what they will get. Our recommendations, when implemented, will have powerful, lasting, and vitally needed benefits for all New Jerseyans.”

"With the continued leadership of the Governor, and strong support from the Legislature, we are hopeful that the Highlands Task Force recommendations will be implemented fully and swiftly to ensure the long-term protection of the Highlands region, and with it the water supply for over half the State," said Task Force member and Highlands Coalition Executive Director Tom Gilbert.

The New Jersey Highlands extends from Phillipsburg in the South to Ringwood in the North and lies within portions of seven counties (Hunterdon, Somerset, Sussex, Warren, Morris, Passaic and Bergen) and ninety municipalities. Municipalities in the Highlands derive 100% of their water from the Highlands. Outside the Highlands, over half of the state’s residents get their drinking water in part from the Highlands (almost 400 million gallons per day yield).

“The quality of our drinking water and the health of our residents depend on a well-preserved Highlands region,” said Bergen County Freeholder Chair Valerie Vainieri Huttle. This Task Force’s goal was not about requiring more discussion and endless analysis. It was all about action. And now we are confident that the Governor will take action."

The Highlands is New Jersey’s last remaining large expanse of pristine mountain lakes and streams and unbroken forests. The region has long been recognized for its most significant natural resource -- drinking water -- which it supplies to over half of New Jerseyans. The region also possesses the greatest diversity of natural resources of any region in the State: 70% of its lands are environmentally sensitive; 370,000 acres of its lands are forested; and over 30 of the State’s threatened or endangered species find suitable htabitat there. A thriving agricultural sector sustains itself on 92,000 acres of agricultural land in the Highlands. The region also contains some of the State’s most valuable historical and cultural sites, including sites from the Revolutionary War, New Jersey’s early industrial age and Native American era. These rich resources provide an unsurpassed quality of life in the region. In recognition of its unique significance, the Highlands has been recognized as a special resource area by both the State and federal governments.

The Highlands is under threat, though, from population growth, large-lot residential subdivisions, increased deforestation and fragmentation and sprawl. Within the five-year period between 1995 and 2000, the Highlands lost-- perhaps forever -- 17,000 acres of forest and 8,000 acres of farmland. -. Growth pressures continue in the region with the trend for land consumption expected to average 3,000 acres every year. Unless these trends are altered and an effective regional approach to the Highlands adopted, the harm to the region will be severe and permanent.

Bold action is needed to protect the Highlands -- and its water resources -- for future generations. For that reason, the Task Force has formulated an action plan through which the State is poised to secure its place as a national leader in the preservation of water resources. The Task Force’s key recommendations include the following:

  • Identify a Preservation Area in the Highlands comprised of environmentally sensitive lands: The Task Force has established a methodology for identifying these lands. Once identified, the Legislature should officially designate the area by statute. Scientific data indicates that the Preservation Area covers between 350,000 and 390,000 acres of the approximately 800,000 in the Highlands.
  • Enhance environmental regulations in the Preservation Area: The Legislature should authorize and direct the DEP to develop regulatory
    standards and limits for land and natural resources uses, including impervious cover, steep slopes, waste water treatment extensions, water allocations and buffers on freshwater wetlands.
  • Create a Highlands drinking water protection and regional planning council: The Legislature should establish a Highlands drinking water protection and regional planning council. The Council should be made up of a majority of county and local elected officials and should develop a regional master plan for the entire Highlands region that preserves natural resources and enhances sustainable growth and quality of life in the region. The Council should have independent, mandatory authority for planning, zoning and enforcement in the Preservation Area, and advisory authority outside it.
  • Enhance the land preservation program in the Highlands: The Governor should immediately target the Preservation Area, particularly lands that provide the greatest protection for drinking water and large forested areas, for acquisition and protection.
  • Provide Municipal Aid: There should be provision for municipal aid recognizing tax losses resulting from State acquisition of lands in the Preservation Area.
  • Provide for Landowner Equity: The purchase of land or development rights in the Highlands using Garden State Preservation Trust funds should require the appraisal to determine values at two points in time -both before and after DEP Highlands-specific regulations.
  • Protect sensitive lands and agricultural lands outside the Preservation
    Area: In the case of environmentally sensitive lands, this should include prioritizing land acquisition in those areas and in the case of agriculture it should include expanded preservation efforts and cooperative programs to work with farmers.

Implementation of these recommendations will require concerted effort by the Governor, Legislature and State Agencies but success will mean the preservation of the Highlands in a truly historic way. The public has voiced its overwhelming support for bold action to protect drinking water and hundreds of people have spoken publicly and written to the Task Force calling for the immediate protection of the most environmentally sensitive lands. It is absolutely necessary to act on these recommendations now, to preserve our vital drinking water supplies and the quality of life in the region generations to come.

Posted by: Staff at
March 14, 2004

Highlands Task Force Presents Action Plan for Preservation of NJ’s Highlands Region

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