Political Landscape Changes, Support for Natural Landscape Remains Steady

November 4, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

Amidst the sweeping change at the gubernatorial level, 52% of NJ voters voted “yes” on yesterday’s ballot question, ensuring $400 million in public funds to protect water sources, natural areas, farmland, parks and historic sites. Although the detailed analysis is not yet in, the story behind the success of the ballot measure seems likely to be one that rises above partisan politics.

My projection of land and historic preservation as a nonpartisan issue is based on the diversity among the organizations that supported the ballot measure.  The organizations ranged from the NJ Farm Bureau to environmental justice advocates, and from outdoor recreation enthusiasts to urban community development corporations. How many other issues in NJ can draw support from these different corners? I take this as a hopeful sign that the notion of a “sustainable New Jersey” links our natural environment to our built environment, spans rural, suburban and urban concerns, and examines the interrelatedness of economic prosperity, equity and access, and environmental and human health and well being.

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I love the images utilized in the NJ Keep it Green Campaign. To me, it says that the public funding question is as much about preserving open spaces and natural resources (which is often portrayed as putting land and animals above people), as it is about the future of our urban centers, opportunities for our youth, green jobs, health, recreation, and so much more.

I found an interesting article by University of Pennsylvania Professor Tom Daniels and University of Southern Maine Professor Mark Lapping (who was the founding Dean of the Bloustein School of Planning at Rutgers University) entitled “Land Preservation: An Essential Ingredient in Smart Growth.”  In it, the authors assert that land preservation needs to become less of a reactive and more of a proactive effort in terms of smart land use planning, especially at the local government level. They note the following:

Planning in America has traditionally meant ‘planning for development.’ But residents in hundreds of communities have recognized that it is also necessary to plan for the preservation of recreational land, natural environments, and working farm and forest landscapes. Striking a balance among the natural environment, working landscapes, and the built environment is one of the biggest challenges that local governments face.

When you consider that NJ is a home rule state comprised of 566 municipalities, this challenge is striking. I am fortunate, however, to work with numerous Dodge grantees whose members work tirelessly to bring new and creative solutions to natural resource, land and water use, and farmland and historic preservation issues, including collaborative efforts and capacity building assistance at the local government level. In fact, of the 135 members of the NJ Keep it Green Campaign, thirty-two are long-time Dodge grantees (note that none of their Dodge funding was used to support lobbying activity). Yesterday’s vote will fuel their mission driven efforts throughout New Jersey.

I know there is the real and nagging question about increased state debt that goes along with the bond measure. I was drawn to the following interview with economist James Hughes, Dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who talked about the profitability of land conservation. While his views may not satisfy everyone, he makes a strong case for public investment in land preservation. He noted that during the current economic downturn that we may have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire land at affordable prices.” He went on to say that “you can get much more bang for your buck now, making it the opportune time to engage in land acquisition.”

I hope that the diverse voices of support on the ballot question signal a new era of cooperation and creativity on land and historic preservation issues. The pathway to a sustainable future will take investment of all kinds – and it will have to take place in and across all sectors. So as NJ experiences a gubernatorial administration change, here’s to nonpartisan efforts that clearly speak to the future of this great state.