Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Campaign that Saved Sterling Forest

Sterling Forest State Park (photo: nynjtc.org)

By Cassandra Bernyk

In the late 1980’s, it became apparent to many grassroots environmental groups and wildlife lovers that the gorgeous Sterling Forest might be growing tall buildings for a small city instead of the luscious trees. The forest that stretches along the New Jersey and New York border, had been bought by Swiss and Swedish investors who were focused on the vision of creating a small city—not giving a second thought about how the forest serves as a large wildlife habitat along with the rain run off serving as a big provider for New Jersey’s major reservoir system. Fortunately, others saw how dangerous this new development could be for our environment. 

The “Save Sterling Forest” campaign was off to a good start getting endorsed by the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission and the Passaic County freeholders, who bought 2,000 acres of the forest for $9 million. Another big accomplishment for the campaign was when Governor Whitman signed a bill that was passed by the New Jersey legislature to provide $10 million to help purchase 15,000 acres of forest, noted an account of these actions in A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns.

With all of these great pushes for the campaign, however, there were some bumps in trying to get the New York and New Jersey officials to cooperate with each other, as Ella Filippone, head of the Passaic River Coalition, remembered. One of the bumps was that New York had to match New Jersey’s $10 million contribution along with trying to get the federal government to pitch in to purchase more forest. During this, New York City and Trenton were not able to put aside their differences over sports teams and corporation headquarters in order to aid this campaign, which made matters more difficult. It also became clear that trying to get the support of both Republicans and Democrats from each state was going to be a difficult task as well. 

It took years of effort and time by organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Passaic River Coalition, New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and many others, to find state and federal funds for the campaign. Finally, in 1996 on Earth Day, the Clinton administration announced that Sterling Forest would become part of the president's ”Parks for Tomorrow” plan. What the various conservation organizations had to do was show they could raise enough money to match the federal government's contribution to the buyout package. The organizations, along with many other foundations, got the funds to purchase the bulk of the mountain forest land. To this day, many people enjoy the beautiful sights and wildlife at the Sterling Forest State Park, thanks to all of the efforts by these organizations.

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