Holding the High Ground—Land&People

Bill Gallagher has to carry his chair to work every morning. And there’s no elevator. Not even stairs. His office is a hundred stories up, on a balcony-sized ledge of million-year-old metamorphic gneiss. There’s no kitchenette, and the men’s room is, well, over behind a tree. But ohhhhh, he enjoys the view.

Look east, and there, poking up over the horizon, are the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, 36 miles away as the hawk flies. Look south, and you begin to appreciate the vastness of the New Jersey Highlands, the last remaining island of contiguous forest in the nation’s most developed state. Cutting diagonally across northwestern New Jersey, from Sterling Forest on the New York border to the Delaware Water Gap and Pennsylvania, the highlands are a link in the chain of ridges and mountains that line the edge of the Atlantic coastal plain. From the Taconics in New York State to the Catoctins in Maryland, they are literally as well as figuratively the conservationist’s high ground in efforts to contain sprawl.

Gallagher points upward. Raptors! Hundreds of them, on some days: hawks–16 species claim air space here–plus osprey, falcons, golden and bald eagles, and right now a turkey vulture, riding a thermal up from the Rockaway Valley below us. This is the Wildcat Ridge Hawkwatch. Gallagher is an auditor, tasked with counting hawks for the Hawk Migration Association of North America. From dawn to dusk, Monday through Sunday–clicker at hand, Zeiss 10×40 glasses around his neck, Leica 30x spotting scope nearby–Gallagher counts raptors. Sometimes, two miles high atop a strong thermal, they are dots in the sky. “And sometimes,” Gallagher says, pointing to an opening in the forest behind us, “that clearing is black with hawks.”

Warm or cold, Gallagher is here from August 15 to November 15, tallying hawks as they migrate to their winter homes in South America (some start as far north as Nova Scotia). In an average year 18,000 hawks will pass overhead, covering 40 miles a day and staying aloft as long as there is light. They soar more than they fly: “No self-respecting hawk flaps his wings after ten in the morning,” Gallagher says. That’s when the sun-warmed earth begins cooking the thermals that loft the hawks on their way.

Gallagher, a retired salesman, enjoys the luxury of solitude. But he also welcomes visitors, and upwards of 2,000 stopped by last year. Some are hikers passing through–countless trails crisscross the highlands, and Four Birds Trail, one of the state’s longest at 19.4 miles, passes nearby. But most are kids–scouts of all ages and students. Lots of students. “Part of my job is education,” Gallagher says, and the ruddy grand-father draws from a deep well of anecdotes to entertain as he subtly lectures on the importance of raptors. He tells of the day a pair of sparring golden eagles tangled right in front of him, and of watching a red-tailed hawk traverse the valley with a three-foot copperhead snake wriggling in its mouth.

Raptors, at the top of their food chain, are critical bio-indicators, their numbers a direct measure of the health of the ecosystem. “The female sharp-shinned hawk will lay five eggs if prey is plentiful,” Gallagher says. “If it’s not, she will lay only one.” He draws from a pocketful of sunflower seeds and soon has the chickadees that flutter about–one perches on his baseball cap even now–eating from the students’ hands. “One time,” Gallagher continues, “a sharp-shinned hawk swooped down and attacked a chickadee that a kid was feeding.” Another lesson of nature.

The Last Best Place
If Hawkwatch is a natural classroom, it is also a bully pulpit. New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman visited last summer; Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt followed in the fall. Both came to advocate for open space preservation.

Governor Whitman came to lead the festivities celebrating Hawkwatch’s protection. The American Tower Corporation, which operates a cell tower on the ridge, last June donated the ten acres containing the overlook, as well as a conservation easement on the remaining land, to the Morris Land Conservancy. Governor Whitman’s goal is to protect 1 million acres of New Jersey open space by 2008, and she places special emphasis on the highlands. “The view that you have here,” the governor said as she surveyed Bill Gallagher’s vista, “you can’t put a dollar amount on.”

In the fight to preserve open space, Hawkwatch is a good observation post. The sprawl that has marched across the flatlands and rolling hills to the east for decades is now within sight. The whistle of a woodchuck looking for a mate is interrupted by the reverberating boom of dynamite assaulting the ledges to the south of us. In the near distance, a condominium development has been carved like a bunker into the face of a cliff. Roughly one-third of the highlands is protected. Another third is developed. The remaining 640,000 acres are the Garden State’s last defense against the highlands’ total fragmentation.

At immediate risk is the forest at our feet. The 300 acres that roll out below the Hawkwatch aerie were slated for a 108-home development. The owner, a regional developer, was amenable to preservation, and the Trust for Public Land, representing a consortium of private and public parties, recently negotiated to buy the property. But while the Hawkwatch view may be priceless, the Brown property, as the tract below is known, was not. Its price: $7 million.

Saving Brown became a priority for almost everyone. Preserving the breathtaking view–can you imagine looking down at a patchwork of roofs and swimming pools? Gallagher asks visitors–captures the public’s imagination, but there is far more to Brown than just its pretty face.

There is critical habitat–the white-tailed deer is prey for the black bear that roam the ridge. The squirrels hustling acorns are dinner for New Jersey’s endangered bobcats, whose dens are hidden beneath Hawkwatch; and the chipmunks rustling through fallen leaves support the Cooper’s hawks, also endangered, that call Wildcat Ridge their home. The loose bark on Brown’s hickory trees provides summer shelter for the endangered Indiana bat. Indeed, the surrounding forest feeds a staggering population of bats. The abandoned Hibernia iron mine on the ridge above is a winter home to some 26,000 Indiana bats, big and little brown bats, and eastern pipistrels. In fall and spring, the bats’ swarming attracts so many viewers that an observation platform is now in the works.

Then there are the trees themselves. The red oaks that feed the deer and wild turkey mingle with maple, hickory, black birch, beech, and hemlock. Brown is a key part of New Jersey’s largest contiguous forest. Taken together, its trees are the lungs that keep the air in this challenged state breathable. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as ten people inhale in a year, and when you live in the nation’s most densely populated state, where the population is growing 20.8 percent a year–as it is here in the highlands–you start counting trees.

Keeping the Funds Flowing
But for Rockaway Township Mayor John Inglisino, Brown’s greatest value lies beneath the trees. The Brown property is part of a giant filter, a deep lode of sand and gravel moraine left when the mile-thick Wisconsin glacier began its retreat some 18,000 years ago. A 40-foot-wide swath of huge boulders, once the bed of a raging river, hints at the torrent of water released by the melting sheet of ice. The water that falls on Brown today stays put, filtering through the forest floor to recharge the underlying Beaver Brook Aquifer, which supplies 2 million New Jerseyans with their drinking water. Developing even a small chunk of the forest would seriously compromise the land’s ability to filter water for the aquifer.

A total of 85 conservation and public interest groups–from national organizations like TPL, Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society to the local Friends of the Rockaway River–have come together to form the Highlands Coalition. The goal is to create a series of protected areas in the highlands. The challenge, says Tim Dillingham, executive director of the coalition, is money. “Developers are canvassing owners of large tracts looking for land to develop,” he says. “The challenge is the high cost of land.”

The job of financing and acquiring Brown fell to TPL. “There is no one place to turn when you need $7 million,” says TPL Project Manager Terrence Nolan. “One significant aspect of this project is the broad array of funding sources–both public and private–that we ultimately patched together.”

TPL kicked things off by committing $100,000 from its Highlands Land Acquisition Fund. The remainder came from nine different sources, including two foundations. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, with a goal of preserving 10,000 acres in New Jersey, granted $500,000, while the Newark-based Victoria Foundation gave $400,000. “The Brown property is an important part of the watershed of the Passaic River, which runs past our front door,” explains Victoria’s Senior Project Manager Nancy Zimmerman.

Another $500,000 came from the Morris Land Conservancy, long active in protecting open space in the highlands. “The effort to protect Brown sparked a partnership that we hope will continue,” says Conservancy Executive Director David Epstein. “Everyone learned from this; it takes more than a single entity to get the big deals done.”

Major funding also came from public sources, which TPL was able to leverage with private contributions. Rockaway Township, whose drinking-water wells are a butterfly’s flight below Brown’s property line, taxes itself an extra penny for every $100 of assessed value to fund an open space trust. Likewise, Morris County collects a 2.5-cent special assessment. The two levies together not only added $1.5 million to the Brown kitty, they also made Rockaway eligible to receive $2 million from the state’s Green Acres municipal grant/loan program.

The principle of taxation for preservation is well established in New Jersey. Open space protection was traditionally funded through bond acts. But two years ago, tired of the inherent instability of bond acts, voters established a ten-year program that annually earmarks $98 million of sales tax revenue for land preservation.

Congress Lends a Hand
The final $2 million came from federal sources, including the Forest Legacy Program and the state grant portion of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF, funded by income from fed-eral offshore oil and gas leases, was created in 1964 to finance open space acquisition and, through a state grant program, recreation. But unlike a true trust fund, Congress must appropriate the money before it can be spent. For almost two decades now, only a quarter of the authorized funds actually have been appropriated, and the state program went unfunded from 1995 through 1999. More than $10 billion in potential open space funding was diverted to other uses.

It was the need to fund LWCF that drew Interior Secretary Babbitt to Hawkwatch last fall. “We need to protect open space before it’s all gone,” Babbitt proclaimed. “It’s time for the federal government to step up and help, and the best way to do that is permanent funding for LWCF.” He was roundly applauded by the accompanying delegation of local officials. Support for land protection is bipartisan in this crowded state, and Babbitt went on to praise Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who has been instrumental in garnering congressional support for open space preservation including the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), whose passage would make $900 million available annually through LWCF to protect open space.

Additional funding, from whatever sources, is sorely needed. While protection of the Brown prop-erty seems certain, the sweep of forest visible from Hawkwatch is disappearing at the rate of 3,500 acres a year. The Trust for Public Land is actively pursuing other parcels to protect. “There is a huge need to respond now,” says Rose Harvey, regional manager of TPL’s Mid-Atlantic Region. “There is more urgency because there is less land. The highlands greenbelt is critical to containing sprawl.”

Rain or shine, Gallagher is back at Hawkwatch from February 15 to May 15 to count hawks on their return north. Of the 18,000 that flew south last fall, perhaps 3,000 will have survived to make the return journey. These are adults, so anxious to nest that they may not pause to feed. The male hawk leads the way. He will locate the nest, make sure all is well, then wait for his mate. Their journey is time-critical, keyed to the temperature at which they will breed.

Raptors return to their birthplace to breed. Gallagher tells of bringing osprey eggs from Maryland to be hatched in an effort to reinstate a local population. The young, banded before they headed south, returned the next year–not just to New Jersey but to the same nesting box they were raised in. It puts loss of habitat in a whole different perspective.

And while Gallagher counts, just around the bend, a quarter-mile down the road from Brown, a sign advertises the latest development of pocket estates. A raw earthen cut stabs into the forest, and the metronomic beeep-beeep-beeep of an earthmover backing up is a relentless reminder that for the highlands, time is running out.


TPL and the Highlands
At the edge of the nation’s largest metropolitan region, the New York-New Jersey Highlands encompass roughly a million rugged acres of forests, lakes, and clear-running streams stretching from the Hudson to the Delaware Rivers. The highlands are home to black bear, otter, bobcat, hawks, owls, hundreds of species of neotropical birds, and dozens of threatened and endangered plant and wildlife species. The area also is home to some 2.8 million people, and in the next 20 years the population here is expected to grow by 400,000.

Protecting the highlands’ clean water, wildlife, and recreational values while guiding this growth is the goal of the Highlands Coalition, an alliance of more than 80 regional organizations. TPL serves on the steering committee.

TPL has preserved more than 25,000 acres in the highlands since the late 1980s, but Rose Harvey, vice president and director of TPL’s Mid-Atlantic Region, says it’s getting more difficult. “Not only are land prices skyrocketing, but ownership is fragmented.” The average landowner holds but 22 acres.

In addition to the land visible from the Hawkwatch ridge, TPL in 1998 successfully protected 15,280 acres of Sterling Forest, just 40 miles from Manhattan. Pressure to build in this important wilderness–the watershed for some 2 million New Jerseyans–brought national attention to the threatened highlands.

But preservation is not the first thing on residents’ minds. “There is an education process.” Harvey says. “And success builds upon success.” A case in point is the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge, where local farmers were wary of federal ownership. TPL, along with the national Fish and Wildlife Service, listened to the farmers’ needs. By selling river-bottom wetlands–environmentally critical but of little agricultural value–farmers gained the capital needed to keep their upland farming viable. Today farmers are among the refuge’s biggest supporters.

Piecemeal protection, while essential for linking existing protected areas, cannot by itself save the highlands. “This can only happen through comprehensive education and master planning,” says Harvey. The Highlands Coalition has proposed such a strategy, which includes acquisition, zoning and other regulatory protection, and models for federal and state partnership.

Richard Stapleton is a sailor, gardener, and freelance journalist living in New Jersey. For more information about the New Jersey Highlands, visit the Mid-Atlantic section of www.tpl.org. Information about the Hawk Migration Association of North America, can be found at www.hmana.org.