The new year brought a new governor: Chris Christie, the 55th elected governor of this state we're in. Economic and fiscal challenges will no doubt grab headlines and absorb much of the Governor's focus. Knowing that a healthy economy goes hand in hand with a healthy environment, here are some steps the new Governor can take to secure our state's environmental and economic future.
Factor in all costs when judging the economic impact of environmental protection. The Environmental Protection Transition Subcommittee recommends establishing a new Office of Economic Analysis to evaluate the economic impacts of rules and regulatory decisions. Any accurate evaluation must include all external and internal costs and benefits, both long-term and short-term, including the economic values of ecosystem services. For example, forests and wetlands safeguard our water supply. The value of services provided by New Jersey's forests is estimated at $2.2 billion per year excluding timber value. Wetlands contribute another $10.6 billion per year in water filtration and supply, and protection from flooding and storms. Governor Christie should ensure that ecosystem service values are part of every economic calculation. That calculation must factor in the cost of replacing lost ecosystem services in the future. It is much less expensive to protect natural functions now than to shoulder the greater, ongoing cost of replacing them.
Continue New Jersey's open space and farmland preservation programs — full speed ahead! In November, New Jersey voters approved $400 million for open space, farmland and historic preservation. They did so in spite of a shaky economy, high unemployment and worries about taxes and personal finances. Voters understood that the clock is ticking on New Jersey's special places and natural resources. It's important for Governor Christie to keep the funds flowing, issue the bonds expeditiously and pursue a long-term permanent funding source. Uncertainty or gaps in funding will mean lost opportunities.
Ensure that the proposed Susquehanna-Roseland power line expansion is subject to the Highlands Act rules and regulations. The proposed expansion of this transmission line runs for over 40 miles through Warren, Sussex, and Morris counties, with 26 miles through areas designated for special protection by the Highlands Act. If built as proposed — with towers double their current height and miles of construction roads — this enormous construction project will cause substantial impacts to environmental, scenic, and recreational resources and lands preserved by the public, including the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Governor Christie should require this proposal to comply with New Jersey's environmental laws and regulations, including the Highlands Act.
Continue Protecting Threatened and Endangered Species Habitat. The Governors' Environmental Protection Transition Subcommittee Report recommends suspending use of Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Landscape Project maps to identify habitat for threatened and endangered species when regulating development. The report recommends instead that DEP limit habitat protection to the spot on a property where an animal was documented. The Landscape Project approach is based on both the actual occurrence of a species and generally accepted scientific principles of animal biology and movement. Protecting only the precise spot where threatened and endangered animals or their nests have been documented, and not their surrounding habitat, ignores the science of biology and flies in the face of common sense. Rare animals cannot survive by standing still any more than humans can! The Governor should direct the DEP to continue using the sound science of the Landscape Project. Without this comprehensive approach, we will fragment critical habitat and populations of rare animals will disappear from the New Jersey landscape.
Adopt protections for soil and other natural resources on preserved farms. New Jersey has some of the best soils in the country, and our Garden State did not get its nickname for nothing! But current farmland preservation rules are not strong enough to protect soils. Whether it's solar panels, greenhouses or cell towers, we're chipping away at the very resources we mean to preserve. The recently adopted legislation allowing solar panels, windmills and biomass energy facilities on preserved farmland may sound like a good idea, but we have plenty of places to put these beneficial structures without damaging fertile farmland! The Governor should tighten regulations to protect the soil, water, and microorganisms that make farmland soils so precious.
New Jerseyans want Governor Christie to succeed in protecting our environment and our water — and improve our state's economic health. Early action on these items will go a long way toward ensuring success!
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation