By Kristen Andrada
Erika Van Auken, the Campaign and Grassroots Coordinator of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, came to speak at our Environmental Writing class on Thursday, April 10. She showed a documentary film on the New Jersey Highlands called “The Highlands: Rediscovered,” which explains the history of the region and why it became the source of clean drinking water for more than half of the State's population. The film explains how the ecological functions of the Highlands forests cleanse rain as it percolates into aquifers and ultimately into surface reservoirs. It also presents the challenges the Highlands region faces in retaining its important forests under pressures to develop the land.
After the documentary, Erika informed the class about the Highlands Protection and Planning Act in New Jersey. This law is important because this protects a water supply that supports 60% of New Jersey communities and this watershed only takes up a small area of New Jersey. A visual map was shown to class to indicate where the New Jersey Highlands are located and the areas that are considered to be preservation and planning. Five towns are entirely within the core preservation area, thirty six towns are within the outer planning area, and forty seven towns are found within both boundaries.
The Highlands Council represents the communities within the Highlands and governs both development and preservation in that region. Originally, the council had balance between members who are pro-development and environmentalists, such as activists in the Highlands Coalition. The council is made up of 15 residents who are from the Highlands: four of them Democrat, four of them Republican and the rest private persons who represent various entities (like schools and companies). However, over the years terms have expired and a shift in political parties disrupted this balance.
The New Jersey Governor appoints most of the members in the Highlands Council. When Governor Jon Corzine was about to leave office, he did not appoint any new members for the Highlands Council when terms ended and this gave Governor Chris Christie the chance to do so. The significance in this action, according to Van Auken, is that Christie is an anti-Highlands protection advocate and has been working to repeal the Highlands Protection and Planning Act.
Fortunately, he does not have enough votes in the State House to take down the law. But, he used the opportunity to appoint members who are anti-protection and pro-development representatives in the Highlands Council to delay any environmental progress in the region.
I had no idea that we had a governing entity that oversees an important resource for New Jersey and I had no idea that there were people who are entirely against it and are working to abolish the law to protect the Highlands. Interestingly, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition headquarters is located on Main Street, Boonton, which is five minutes away from where I live. After the semester ends, I’m going to pay them a visit and see how I can get involved!