Highlands Purchase Expands Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area

The Trust for Public Land, State of New Jersey, Morris County, and Jefferson Township are pleased to announce that a 835-acre property, previously known as the Baker Firestone property, has been preserved and is in the process of being conveyed to the State of New Jersey and Jefferson Township.

The property, which has been purchased by the Trust for Public Land as an interim conservation purchaser for $4.6 million, has been a long-standing conservation priority in the New Jersey Highlands.

The Trust for Public Land was joined by U.S. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11), New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Assistant Commissioner Rich Boornazian, Morris County Freeholder Ann F. Grossi, and Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter at an event to announce the culmination of this conservation effort.

Anthony Cucchi, The Trust for Public Land’s New Jersey State Director said, “We are grateful to be here today to make this announcement and celebrate with all of the partners and supporters of this effort. When federal, state, county and local government agencies all come together to protect a tract of land, it is clearly an important property for conservation. This multi-layered partnership highlights not only the significance of one property, it also demonstrates the commitment that exists to conserve land and water resources throughout the New Jersey Highlands.”

After purchasing the entire 835-acre property to facilitate its protection, The Trust for Public Land is now in the process of conveying 647-acres to the State of New Jersey as an addition to Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area, and 188-acres to Jefferson Township for municipal recreation and conservation purposes.

The Baker Residential property has been a high priority for more than 20-years due to its varied wildlife habitat, important water resources, and linkage to over 3,000 acres of preserved lands. Located in the state-designated Highlands Preservation Area, the site contains environmentally sensitive wetland areas, steep slopes and habitat for a number of important state and federally listed species including the bobcat, golden-winged warbler, timber rattlesnake, red-shouldered hawk, Indiana bat, Cooper’s hawk and barred owl.

Funding for the acquisition includes $1,940,000 in federal Highlands Conservation Act funds and $1,618,720 in New Jersey Green Acres State Land Acquisition funds for the 647-acres being transferred to the State; the remaining 188-acres will be transferred to Jefferson Township using $800,000 from the Morris County Open Space Trust Fund and $241,280 from a Green Acres Planning Incentive Grant awarded to Jefferson Township.

U.S. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen sponsored the federal legislation that created the Highlands Conservation Act and provided federal support for the Highlands region of New Jersey. Rep. Frelinghuysen is also a strong supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), from which Highlands Conservation Act funds are derived and which uses revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling for conservation and outdoor recreation purposes.

“The federal Highlands Conservation Act was established in 2004 for just this purpose – to preserve important environmentally sensitive areas that sit amid congestion of northern New Jersey’s densely populated suburban areas,” said Frelinghuysen. “With this conveyance, we are assisting the protection of open space, sources of drinking water and important wildlife species.”

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored the HCA legislation in the Senate and is also a stalwart supporter of full and dedicated funding for LWCF.

“Expanding protected areas in the Highlands is a major conservation priority in New Jersey, and today’s announcement ensures that this land will be preserved for generations to come,” said Senator Lautenberg. “The Highlands provide drinking water for millions of New Jersey residents and we’ll keep working to protect this treasured area and all of New Jersey’s natural resources.”

Senator Menendez was a co-sponsor of the Highlands Conservation Act and has been a long time supporter and a leader in the effort to secure federal funding to protect valuable open space.

“Thanks to the commitment of government agencies at all levels, this land is now a part of the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area. This purchase is an investment in the future of New Jersey’s natural resources,” said Menendez. “Protecting the New Jersey Highlands also protects the region’s drinking water, wildlife and recreational open spaces. And I will continue to support conservation efforts to ensure a better quality of life for our communities, families, and children.”

Dee Blanton, Acting Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration in the Northeast Region, said, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pleased to have had the opportunity to help protect a portion of the Baker property by awarding a Highlands Conservation Act grant to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. This project will result in over 646 acres being added to the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area, and is a wonderful example of the important conservation results that can be achieved with these funds.”

State funding through the Green Acres Program was provided thanks to the $400 million Green Acres Bond Act approved by voters in November 2009. The Trust for Public Land played a lead role in passage of the Bond Act as part of the NJ Keep It Green campaign.

“This is another example of Governor Christie’s commitment to preserving open and natural spaces in New Jersey, especially in the North Jersey Highlands, which offer some of the most unique and remarkable tracts in the state,” said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin. “Preserving this site and others like it is important because they are vital to the quality of potable water for millions of state residents, ensure continued viable habitat for many plant and animal species, enhance recreational opportunities for our residents, and raise the quality of life in our state.”

“The acquisition of this property ends years of effort to preserve this property from development, now it will provide many opportunities for both active and passive recreation,” said Jefferson Township Mayor Russ Felter. “The partners in this acquisition, namely, The Trust for Public Land, the State of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, the federal government, the County of Morris, and the Township of Jefferson, were able to protect this property for future generations.”

“These 835-acres are an important addition to the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area,” said Ann F. Grossi, Morris County Freeholder, and liaison to the county’s open space program. “This property, along with the more than 3,000 acres already preserved in the Management Area, will provide recreation, safeguard wetland areas, preserve open space and provide habitat for endangered as well as common wildlife and plant species.”

Jim Leach, a representative for Jefferson Township, said, “Jefferson Township has been interested in seeing this property preserved for many years. The property is contiguous to over 3,000 acres of the preserved lands owned by the State of New Jersey, Morris County and the Township of Jefferson. This unique property flows into both the Musconetcong and Rockaway River Watersheds and has a direct influence over water quality in both Lake Shawnee and Lake Hopatcong as well as being a major aquifer recharge area for the Township’s water system. The environmentally sensitive wetland areas and adjacent forests provide a unique habitat for many wildlife species.”

Lisa Stern, NJ-DEP’s Green Acres Program Northeast Team Leader, said, “The State and Township have been working together since the 1990’s to preserve this property, which is surrounded on three sides by the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area. We appreciate all of the cooperation afforded by the Baker Residential group in making this happen.”

Compton Gobel Road, a well packed dirt road, traverses the property for almost two miles and will provide excellent access to numerous trails for hiking and nature viewing. Ownership will be split between Jefferson Township and the State of New Jersey as an addition to the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area. Jefferson Township may develop a small portion of the property for ball fields but will manage the majority for low-impact recreation.

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit land conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and natural areas, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Since 1972, The Trust for Public Land has helped protect 3 million acres nationwide, including more than 25,000 acres in New Jersey. The Trust for Public Land depends on the support of individuals, corporations, and foundations.