The upsurge of people advocating for the protection of the Highlands at the two public meetings of the Highlands Task Force demonstrates loudly that New Jerseyans cherish the Highlands of New Jersey. Of the 300+ people that packed the hearing room on January 20, 2004 in Mahwah, the vast majority agreed that it was time for a regional planning agency to take the lead in protecting the Highlands. To further stamp the approval for preserving the Highlands, most of the people who spoke live, work, pay taxes and are constituents of the region!
Just about everyone recognized that a regional planning agency is necessary to protect approximately 350,000 acres of land in the region, but also to find a way to support targeted, sustainable economic growth within the region's resource constraints.
While the host communities rightfully deserve to receive their fair share of New Jersey State aid to offset the thousands of acres watershed lands within their borders, local municipalities need a Highlands Commission to help them preserve water and natural resources. Highlands communities do not have sufficient resources, technical expertise and rarely the political will to resist development pressures to genuinely balance growth and preservation of an area that the U.S. Forest Service called 'a region of national significance.'
The Highlands of New Jersey, despite the dramatic loss of thousands of acres of open space in the last decade still possess 250,000 acres of unprotected land that is important for critical habitat and water resources. More than 240 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians have local populations could disappear without further protection. Even our keystone species; the Black Bear is not protected. They were hunted for the first time in 30 years; not just because of their increase in population but also because their habitat has shrunk dramatically.
More than 160 historical and cultural sites are bereft of protection. The forests of the Highlands conceal the history of the region such as the Willamsville mines in Vernon and revolutionary era cemeteries scattered throughout. The various limekilns and forges are inadequately protected and deserve public attention as well.
Many public policies have been tried to preserve the Highlands. From the statewide moratorium in 1988 to prohibit development of watershed lands to the New Jersey State Plan's to control growth to the 1 million acre open space preservation drive spearheaded by former Governor Whitman, none of them worked to stem the tide of Highlands' sprawl.
The naked truth is that home rule, a fiercely defended tradition in New Jersey, is the chief cause for the continued sprawl in the Highlands. The discretion and lack of accountability that towns have traditionally enjoyed often camouflages what is in plain sight; the search for ratables and the influence of special interests sacrifices open space, water and natural resources and that is most evident in the Highlands. Their best collective effort to preserve this vital region as individual towns is a potpourri of inconsistent land use policies, unrealistic development plans, lack of regional planning, scarce technical resources to manage growth and the constant pressure of rising property taxes.
The paradigm is broken. Continued debate to justify the status quo in letting the towns and counties run things in this region will inevitably lead to the irretrievable loss of the Highland's natural heritage and pristine water for millions.
For the 1.4 million people that live in the Highlands, for the 11 million that derive their water from the Highlands and for the 14 million people that recreate in the Highlands genuine preservation of this region must rely on the creation of a regional planning entity to protect their quality of life. One, that will control growth, protect natural and water resources, manage recreation opportunities and strike a real balance between development and preservation They are not new. They have been successful throughout the Northeast, including in New Jersey where the Pinelands Commission and the Meadowlands Commission. The plan recently adopted by the Meadowlands Commission is being widely praised by environmentalists, local communities and developers alike.
As President Theodore Roosevelt once said,' The nation does well if it treats natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value."
We cannot afford to wait another generation. If we are to preserve the Highlands we need a Highlands Commission now.
A very famous Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, preserved tens of millions of acres of open space. He proclaimed when visiting the Grand Canyon, "Leave it as it is... Keep it for our children and your children's children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see." While the Pinwheel Vista is not the Grand Canyon it represents the Highland's most spectacular vistas. The same ethic and spirit applies for the Appalachian Trail ' Pinwheel Vista' and the Threatened and Endangered Species found on the Van Dokkenburg Farm.
For these reasons and many more, I am working hard day and night to preserve Vernon's environmental and cultural values.
Unfortunately, Republican Mayor Logan and his cadre of radical anti- environmental Council members make a mockery of our Party's heritage and threaten Vernon's cultural and natural resource values.
The Van Dokkenburg Farm / Maple Grange Park land swap is the sordid story of a park that is being sacrificed for special interests. The landowners and their developer friends are salivating at the prospect of fragmenting the Van Dokkenburg Farm for future housing and golf courses. While that has been vehemently denied by the Council, sources in Vernon government and the NJDEP not only know but have seen plans for the remainder land. The Council would love for Vernon's residents to conveniently believe that opposition to the land swap is simply about a Bog Turtle or some ridiculous anti- children campaign.
Simply put, there is no excuse for making our children wait to for fields nor for the recreation programs to compete with each other for facilities. The 43 acres of the Amerindian site represents a great addition to Vernon's rich cultural and environmental asset and does not preclude the rest of the Fagan property to be converted to ball fields. The Fagan Property was the most favored site by the Recreation Board in 1999 and gained further support of the various boards and bodies when the Council asked for our input. Moreover, the setting along the Black Creek with rolling hills and the bucolic settings conjures a true park like atmosphere than merely converting tens of acres of cornfields into a sprawling recreational facility scattered helter skelter to avoid extensive wetlands.
Meanwhile, the Van Dokkenburg Farm has stood idled for several years since the elderly owner passed away. Numbering over 1000 acres at one time, the elder Van Dokkenburg sold half of his farm to there State of New Jersey for the Appalachian Trail corridor over the last thirty years. Afterwards, the State of New Jersey made offers to buy the rest from a family that was no longer interested in agriculture. If the Logan Council did not dangle their land swap proposal, it would not be hard to imagine what the Van Dokkenburg Farm is best suited for except for its preservation.
Our Republican Mayor and Council cannot claim fiscal prudence in making the swap since the costs of building the fields and infrastructure of phase I only is $100,000 cheaper than doing the same at Maple Grange Park. However, additional studies mandated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the federally protected Bog Turtle will certainly cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. The Council's bid to 'negotiate' with the feds is tantamount to pleading that Vernon Township should not do their studies. The Council repeated doublespeak about doing methodical investigations without making a final decision and remaining objective is also alot of bunk. Several weeks ago, the Vernon Council passed a resolution instructing their Township Manager to negotiate the land deal. Even more alarming, this Council was poised to pass an ordinance at the August 11, 2003 Township Council meeting to consummate the swap but was thwarted by the United Fish and Wildlife Service letter dated July 25, 2003 advising Vernon Township to submit federal regulations regarding the Bog Turtle. All the while Councilman Neil Desmond would like to re-assure the public that no decision is in the offing and that they are still conducting studies.
But recent history with this Council demonstrates that they are capable of taking whatever steps to push their agenda. From losing lawsuits in their bid to have Hamburg Mountain developed to their blatant attempt of sending municipal workers to run over the Amerindian site with earth moving equipment. The Council's deliberate calmness and low key approach to the land swap underscores how they have learned to tone down their swashbuckling image in light of their irresponsible conduct.
In 1992, the United States Forest Service published a Report where they characterized the Highlands as a 'region of national significance'. For the latest twenty years, Vernon Township has become the epicenter of an intense struggle to preserve the Highlands. The balance between locally driven sprawl and the need to protect the natural resources of the region has become a politically lightning rod. Runaway home rule should not able to sacrifice places like Hamburg Mountain, the Amerindian Site nor the Van Dokkenburg Farm for development. Maybe it is time for Vernon Township to respond to a higher authority, perhaps a Highlands Regulatory Authority?
For decades, the United States has suffered an invasion unlike any other. Our common enemies have penetrated well beyond the beachheads and are deeply found inland. They are in the mountains, in the forests and in the wetlands. Even the cities are filled with infiltrators, sometimes camouflaged but mostly they are in plain sight! Our foes do not carry guns, wear no armor nor are led by malevolent leaders. Instead, they spread rapidly capitalizing on Man's actions, his vehicles and his creations.
Yes, indeed, not only is the United States invaded, but is barely putting up a fight! Who is the enemy? Legions of invasive plants and animals from throughout the world that are not native to North America have made the United States a permanent home. Am I overstating the threat? No!
The inconspicuous woolly adelgid, a microscopic insect from Japan, is systematically destroying the Northeast's hemlock forest without mercy. The insect attaches itself to the underside of the needles of hemlock trees, encases itself in silky shell and sucks the photosynthetic nutrients. Re-producing at remarkable rates, millions of adelgids can suck the life if a full grown old growth hemlock tree in a few years. With no known enemies in North America, there is no practcal method to stop this pest from sending the hemlock tree the way of the Dodo!
Chilhood memories of playing with cattails and chomping on them as a punk may be relegated to just that; memories! The beautiful purple loosestrife from Europe is forever changing the vegetative composition of our wetlands. Their woody stems bustling with purplish pink flowers are disarming to marvel but burst with thousands of seeds to colonize and outcompete cattails and reeds. Marsh dependent birds like bitterns and rails may abandon loosestrife infested wetlands. The loss of habitat is relentless as wetland after wetland is converted into a loosestrife monoculture. Once established, it is nearly impossible to destroy.
Another European plant, the garlic mustard, is much less attractive but equally as noxious! This 2-3 foot stemmed plant produces the tinest of white flowers in early spring. It has spread swiflty throughout New Jersey. Any trailhead, woods road or forest edge disturbance is an excellent opportunity for this plant to aggressively gain a foothold. Beyond the toehold, the wind disperses of seeds into the woods, unsuspecting hikers trekking in deep forest disperse seeds that got caught in their hiking boots' soles. As an epehemeral, a plant that grows in full sunlight before the trees open their first leaves, the garlic mustard is swamping out our beloved spring wildflowers. Dutchman breeches, trilliums, twinflower and many other spring bloomers are being overwhelmed. Even a well-intentioned Girl Scout troop calling themselves the Garlic Mustard busters could not pull every plant from the Appalachian Trail on Wawayanda Mountain in Vernon.
The Japanese Knotweed is as dangerous as its name is ominous. This foreign invader of a vine spreads rapidly through runners underground as well as just growing plain fast. Taking advantage old disturbed earth, the Japanese Kotweed will snuff out the life of any plant it can crowd out, creating vast monocultures especially along roadsides. They will march anywhere there is sufficient sunlight and bare dirt. Once again, this aggressive vine is nearly impossible to destroy since its root system is deep and its underground network extensive.
The roses of sharon and the butterfly bush shrubs are nursery favoriites. Sold by the millions for their showy flowers and marketed as an attractant of butterflies and hummingbirds. These two shrubs are 'getting away' from the confines of backyards and gardens. The roses of sharon drop hundreds of seeds within the drip line of the plant. Before you know it, everything growing underneath rose of sharon branches are baby ones. Strangely, perennials have a difficult time growing here. Rumor has it that the Roses of sharon change the ph in the soil to favor the propagation of its own seedlings. Sounds like a science fiction movie coming to life!
Another favorite of mcmansions and older colonials is the barberry. These thorny shrubs with bright red fruits are found gracing many a drive way and walkways in suburbia. The red seeds are readily eaten by birds that then drop the seedlings in their travels. The barberry does not find itself on the deer menu. As a result, in deer infested areas like the Watchung Reservation in Union County and Worthington State Forest along the Delaware River, every other understory shurb and plant has been eaten except for Barberry which now carpets the forest floor.
The unsuspecting hiker or nature enthusiast may enjoy an outing in New Jersey's natural areas, but I wonder if they realize the invaders in their midst?
Vernon's Imperiled Places: The Van Dokkenberg Farm Re-Visited
The broad pastoral sweep of farmland that greets the driver heading north on Rte. 94 has been taken for granted for years.
Vernon Valley is considered by many to be the most spectacular viewshed in the Appalachian Trail corridor, the only stretch where it crosses a valley between two mountainous ridges. From the popular rock outcroppings on Wawayanda Mountain, many have enjoyed the almost unfettered, panoramic view of Slide Mountain in the Catskills to the north, Pochuck Mountain to the west and Hamburg Mountain to the south. The nearly 600 acres of the Van Dokkenberg Farm represents the dominant landscape before Vernon Center connecting with the Rickey Farm to create a picture post card image that is the lure of hikers, nature enthusiasts and photographers. This Vernon 'asset' represents one of the most popular examples of eco-tourism in a region where unspoiled views are as endangered as housing subdivisions are common.
But the Van Dokenberg Farm is more than just open space in a trail viewshed. It is a large farm where the land was tilled and the cows milked well into the 1990's. The Van Dokkenbergs farmed their land until they were too old to continue. Well into their 80's, they farmed while resisting many offers to sell to development in an era where sprouting mansions is more lucrative than growing corn. Their dedication to agriculture is not a singular testimony in Vernon Valley. The Gerards, the Kadishes, the Borisuks, the Baldwins, the Theobalds and the Rickeys have all struggled economically while trying to make farming a source of income for them like their ancestors before them. They all call Vernon Valley home. Without their collective commitment to farming, Vernon Valley would not have an Appalachian Trail, nor its famous viewshed nor its tourists.
The decades of farming also produced other benefits. Vernon Valley has retained its natural character and surprisingly, is among the last places in the State and the region for a whole host of fauna, flora and habitats. The hundreds of acres of pastureland is home to 3 species on the NJ Endangered and Threatened List. The Savannah, Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows could still be found, even though they were more common in the past. Declining species such Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink can still be heard in the spring off of Rte. 94.
The forested corridors along the Pochuck and Black Creeks harbor Barred Owl and Cooper's Hawk. Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser still breed in isolated wetlands which provide cover for American and Least Bitterns, two nocturnal and very rare heron type birds which still breed here. More listed species are still locally common such Blue Spotted Salamander and Wood Turtle while the elusive Bog Turtle can be found in limestone fens.
Amid this setting, the Van Dokkenberg farm is the gateway to an evolving agricultural region facing today's challenges with entrepeneurship and inventiveness. The Heaven Hill Farm is already one of Vernon's best kept secret. Mixing farmside activties like hayrides and petting domestic animals with a modern retail operation replete with nursery products is proof positive that the Heaven Hill Farm will thrive with the growth of eco-tourism in the future. The Bobolink Farm, recently featured in the New York Times, produces old fashioned cheese from milk generated by their cows. Their products are marketed locally.
There are new threats on the horizon. The temptation by town fathers to convert the Van Dokkenerg Farm into a large recreation facility is irresistable. One can argue that the purchase of the farm is a financial benefit, since the Township has at least $1.5 million in their warchest for land acquisition and they may reap much more by selling the Maple Grange Park for development.
At one time, members of the Vernon Open Space Committee agreed that the Van Dokkenberg Farm was the number one open space preservation priority.
Neighboring farmers bemoan the possible loss of such a large, intact farm in 2002. Are the days numbered for those anonymous commuters who in their rush to go to work may find some solace in enjoying the sweeping views of the fields of the Van Dokkenberg farm?
In 2000, a group of international experts called Team Vernon developed a list of tasks of recommendations for Vernon to tackle. One of the recommendations called upon Vernon leaders was to identify its 'cultural and natural resource assets'. A great example of just such an asset is the Van Dokkenberg Farm; a strategically important farm to be preserved at a vitally important time in Vernon's history.
But troubling questions remain. Will Vernon preserve its agricultural and natural resources as part of its tourism infrastructure? Or do we lose another asset in a potential eco-tourist economy? Can we allow overzealous leaders to condemn another priceless resource when other alternatives remain?
Can Vernon's identity afford to lose the Van Dokkenberg Farm?
If Maple Grange Community Park is to be a true public park , then why has this Council resisted using state funds to acquire and improve the park?
If Maple Grange Community Park is a public park then why is this Council so determined to destroy and debunk the rich Amerindian artifacts buried on our land instead of preserving the artifacts and extolling the civic pride of our assets?
If Maple Grange Community Park is a true public park then why are there No Trespassing signs since last summer?
If Maple Grange Comunity Park is a true public park then why does the Council plan the large scale commercialization including a cell tower, the sale of the park name to private entities and diverting revenue to public coffers?
Why don't the Vernon based organized non-profit sports groups that will use the Maple Grange Community Park benefit from the concessions and other revenue generation from Maple Grange Community Park, as is the practice in other communities?
Will the booked commercial or private functions have priority over the public desire to schedule sports in pursuit of the much needed revenue to pay off the debt?
What right will you have to the park, to walk in toss a ball with a child or simply sit in a car? Will out of towners be allowed in the park, even though they neither paid for it nor may have a legal right to be there?
Yes, we all want a park for our children. And yes we want it yesterday. But at what cost?
Several years ago, Essex County and Newark colluded to build a minor league baseball stadium on Riverbank Park, a 10 acre Olmsted designed park that was dilapidated but very popular with the Ironbound community. The County and City promised that they would be able to use the new stadium for neighborhood organized sports, a playground and the concessions as well, however, the stadium would be a private facility first.
The community groups, residents, historic preservationists and statewide environmental organizations aligned themselves to defeat the stadium. Essex County not only threw in the towel but agreed to refurbish the park.
They won because the use of Green Acres and federal UPARR funds required the County to protect the park for its community.
The moral to this story is that parks are public lands to be used by people; the citizens of our land. We collectively own the park and have an inalienable right to it. The use of Green Acres funding comes with conditions to ensure that the right of the public to use the park is not infringed, restricted or prohibited by a local jurisdiction, town or community.
The same goes with commercialization. As a matter of policy, Green Acres frowns upon the overt commercial uses of parks for profit by private entities or semi-public enterprises at the expense of the members of that community. That is why the public in Jersey City fought doggedly against the commercial plans for Liberty State Park that would have converted a bucolic park in an urban landscape into a hokey mix of exclusive restaurants and upscale marina on public lands where the public at large could not afford such luxuries.
For Maple Grange Community Park to be a haven for Vernon's families, children, sports enthusiasts, hikers, bird watchers and our community it need not make a profit. For Maple Grange Community Park to be a truly owned by Vernon's residents, it must be protected and preserved for future generations.
With this rogue Council seemingly fighting at every turn to produce some park that breaks the barriers of conventional wisdom leaves all of us at a loss to understand their motivation.
Spending millions through bonding to be paid for by the taxpayers of Vernon instead of using the conventional and cheaper method of relying upon Green Acres funding is bewildering. There has been no shortage of opportunities to raise any funds for this park.
Vernon Civic Association offered to apply for Green Acres non-profit grants of up to $500,000 twice, NJ Fish and Game was interested in buying a 20 acre portion for a boat launch, Vernon could have sold the historic portion back to the State, Vernon could have applied to the Green Trust for both the acquisition and the improvements at a rate of 75% loan/25% grant, and the National Archaeological Conservancy offered to buy the historic site as well.
This Council is neither pro-park nor pro-community. They could care less about your democratic right or mine to having a great park. They are about self-centered egotistical political power at the expense of everyone. They pander to the recreation and park advocates as they eviscerate this community without care, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
They champion the cause of the Maple Grange Community Park while claiming to be fiscal conservative Republicans and then hose our town in debt because they cannot pursue Green Acres funding because we told them so. Since John Logan became Mayor, Vernon's debt has increased from 11 million to 26 million with the last 8 million in bonding. Even Councilman Neil Desmond stated we can still borrow to our stated ceiling of $52 million without even understanding the ramifications of that folly.
We cannot entrust this Council with establishing a true public park. We cannot entrust this Council with the responsibility of managing Vernon's fiscal health. We cannot entrust this Council with the public trust when they are so willing to destroy historic sites and our environment.
This Council simply cannot play ball with the rest of us by any set of rules.
Birdwatching Goes Mainstream
Browsing a recent magazine rack at Barnes & Noble, the latest edition of Birding by the American Birding Association caught my eye. An article entitled, "Popularity of Birding still Growing" compelled me to buy the magazine. Being always interested in America's growing number of biophiliacs ( lovers of nature), birdwatching is the gateway avocation for those who want to enjoy nature and the outdoors.
Since its origins in the 1800's, birdwatching has been slowly growing. John James Audubon introduced the rest of the world to the avifauna of North America with his spectacular paintings and drawings. Needless to say, before the advent of wildlife photography Mr. Audubon resorted to shooting his clients for the perfect pose. Still, watching birds was for a long time, confined to the very wealthy elites and the pseudo-scientists and outdoorsmen that observed birds for study and science.
It wasn't until Roger Tory Peterson launched his "Guide to the Eastern Birds" in 1933 that Americans would begin their long term love affair with birds. At first hard covered and later soft covered, the Guide for the first time enabled regular people to rely quickly on a compact book dedicated to bird markings, description, range maps and accurate drawings that made bird observation with binoculars easy.
The growth was slow at first but steady. In the last thirty years, birdwatching has really take off. Birders list species of birds like some people collect baseball cards or Barbie dolls after they are observed and identified. Optics companies sell binoculars that are armored, waterproof and fitted with the best crafted lenses normally manufactured for professional 35 millimeter cameras. Publishers sell millions of books every year regarding birds. Despite the proliferation of dozens of bird guides and regional books already in the last several decades, new art and accurate descriptions in 'The Sibley Guide to Birds' makes it the fastest selling guide ever; 500,000 copies since 1999. The author David Allen Sibley is quickly becoming this century's Roger Tory Peterson as a new generation discover birds through his lovely art and easy layout since, well, Roger Tory Peterson.
Attesting to the sustained growth in the popularity of birding , the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment (NSRE) conducted a survey in 2001. Bird watchers regardless of whether they are 'hard-core' or 'feeder' watchers were surveyed. The number of Americans that watch birds have increased from 21.2 million or 12% of the total population in 1983 to 70.4 million in 2000-2001 or 33% of the total population starting at the age of 16!
In just over 15 years, people that call themselves birders has tripled. The greatest growth is in the South where the increase is a whopping 388%! Ironically, the second slowest spike is in the northeast with only a 199% increase!
According to the NSRE survey the bulk of the birders went out looking for birds less than ten times per year. But the practice is now widespread demographically. Once a hobby of mostly men, the educated and the wealthy is instead as endangered species! The survey finds the newest birders are women, between the ages of 40 and 59,and white. She lives in the south, in a middle class home and may not having a college degree.
To capture the economic power of 70 million Americans in their leisure pursuits, many communities and regions are using bird or nature festivals to attract the birder or eco-tourist. According to the same surveys, where there were just a few dozen festivals in the early nineties, today there are nearly 200.
Since birders like to eat out, stay overnight at a reasonable hotel and buy souvenirs, they are like the rest of us on vacations. There are few studies that have gauged the economic advantages of this phenomenon. But according to Dr. Paul Kerlinger who undertook an economic study of the contribution birders made to Cape May and Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge in the 1990's, he pointed to the millions of tourist dollars birders infuse local businesses in their wake every year.
In 1997 and 1998, I persuaded the New Jersey Audubon Society to hold a Highlands Birding Weekend in Vernon. The first year, the event was based at the Legends Hotel with a one night and two day stay which attracted 162 birders while the subsequent event was lengthened to three days and two nights. The first year was a rousing success with 119 species observed and profitable for NJAS and ostensibly for the Legends Hotel. The second and last year of the event occurred at the same time as the very popular Cape May Weekend in the middle of May and it was not successful. To this day, I believe that it was too expensive to have people pay $118 each of two nights at the Legends when other hotels nearby are available for half that price.
The Highlands of Vernon, West Milford and the neighboring Wallkill Valley is home to 125 species of birds that breed in May and June. This region begs for the sort of festival and economic planning that will attract greater numbers of eco-tourists and birder watchers. The preservation of the Highlands is an ongoing public policy effort by the State of New Jersey, the federal government, and the growth of county and local dedicated open space taxes will save much this region. Unfortunately some of the best birding places in Vernon like Hamburg Mountain and the Norvin Green Connector in West Milford is subject to busy planning by these towns for more condos, hotels, golf courses, wider roads, more potable water and strip malls. The threatened mountainous forests are teeming with raptors, warblers and owls that will disappear if we choose to kill the goose before she lays the golden egg.
A postscrpit: I wonder if the 33% of the population that enjoys birding could convert their passion at the ballot box. Now that would make an interesting exit poll!
Vermivora chysoptera, the Golden winged Warbler, is a little known breeding bird of the New Jersey Highlands and the Kitattinies. Nesting in isolated alder swamps and bogs surrounded by large patches of forest, power line cuts and overgrown farm fields to a lesser extent, this warbler has never been very common in this New Jersey. This species has experienced a range wide and steep decline in recent decades. In fact, the reduction in numbers has seemingly accelerated through the 1990's at a rate of 7.5% per year according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Golden winged Warbler is a neo-tropical songbird, meaning, the bird nests in North America during the spring and summer and then migrates south for the winter. The winter havens are found in Central America and the Caribbean islands. The bird arrives in early to mid-May to its nesting territories, with the males usually returning first to stake out their turf. The species practice 'imprinting'; which means the birds come back to the general area where they were born.That is how a local population sustains itself.
By May 10, the males will return to the numerous alder swamps along Rte. 515 in Vernon and Hardyston. The extensive power line cuts along Union Valley Rd. in West Milford and the overgrown fields in the Delaware Water Gap, singing their "zee bee bee bee". The male will perch on the tallest perimeter tree in the swamp, usually in an aspen tree or grey birch to sing his claim of his new homestead. Females arriving several days later will be lured by the singing. After several days of chasing and rituals all the pairs will have been sorted out.
Once they have mated, the couple will turn to the task of builidng a nest with the female setting up the housekeeping. The nest is constructed of vegetative matter concealed in tall grasses and thickets in the midst of a hummock or at the foot of an arrowwood viburnum or highbush blueberry. Considered a specialist because of their very specific habitat requirements, a good sized home territory is a 5-10 acre area with at least 25-30% herbaceous cover or non-woody vegetation. Typically, 4-5 eggs are laid in late May and the young are fully fledged by the end of June.
The habitat that the Golden winged Warbler requires is a temporary one. Because of succession, the process where fields will convert to forest over time, the amount of available habitat fluctuates. Unlike the Blue winged Warbler, a very close cousin which is very common and isn't very choosy about where it nests (generalist), the Golden winged Warbler apparently always nested where nature played a direct role. Where fires and hurricanes created openings in the forest canopy, the Golden winged Warbler would colonize opportunistically. Here in the Highlands of New Jersey, the high headwater area for the Passaic, Pequannock, Wanaque and Wallkill Rivers, many small streams originate from a large concentration of swamps and isolated marshes. Historically, habitat was once much more plentiful.
Today, there are many factors that are contributing the the decline and possible extinction of the Golden winged Warbler in New Jersey and globally.
Unfortunately,in the beginning, the majority of lakes and ponds in the Highlands were the result of man-made dams where once swamps and marshes stood. This habitat loss was extensive in New Jersey. With the conversion of farmland to forest on the 20th century it offered a respite for the population. Golden winged Warblers probably thrived with the removal of forest cover and with thousands of acres of farmland. The Golden winged Warbler now came into contact with the Blue winged Warbler population and the species began to interbreed.
Meanwhile, as the forest recovered in New Jersey,the habitat was much reduced. As the numbers declined, the species may have reverted to its old haunts in the isolated swamps but they were fewer and more scattered. New threats followed, though. With the suburbanization of the Highlands, there is more land clearing, the landscape is no longer neatly distinguishable between farmland and forest. Worse, subdivisions adjacent to previously isolated swamps surrounded by forest attract the less fussy Blue winged Warbler. So the cycle of habitat loss, exposure to and hybridization with the Blue winged Warbler and a long term decline in the numbers of Golden winged Warbler has brought the species to the precarious condition it is in today.
Several initiatives are underway to save the species both in New Jersey and nationally. The New Jersey Non-game Program funded a census recently to learn the status of the species on public lands in order to, hopefully, develop management plans that can maintain sufficient habitat in state forests, parks and wildlife management areas. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology have undertaken perhaps the most ambitious research thus far, with the Golden Winged Warbler Atlas Project (GOWAP). Using academicians and regular citizen scientists,the GOWAP effort is censusing the range and population of the species to get a snapshot in time of the current global population. But the study does not end there. Using a simple protocol of studying bird behavior and songs, we are learning what is the real impact of the Blue winged Warbler.
Going into the third year of the study, we have learned that the Golden Winged Warbler no longer breeds in the Ramapos, and Wyanokies. They have disappeared from much of eastern Highlands. The Kitattiny population has been drastically reduced to less than a dozen pairs. The few that remain exhibit different coloration with weird song mixes that suggest recent hybridization. Isolated population pockets can be found in the Sparta Mountains,Wawayanda State Park and elsewhere. But the last stronghold appears to be found in the high headwater area of the Pequannock River. The Hamburg Mountain ridge to the west of Rte. 515 in Vernon, the extensive swamps along the Rte. 23 corridor in Hardyston, and Jefferson and the Pacack Brook watershed in particular stretching from West Milford to Vernon is this bird's last redoubt.
Owing to the large forest patches found in the Pequannock Watershed coupled with the Hamburg Mountain Wildlife Management Area, this region would appear to provide a large stable land area with plenty of suitable habitat. But where a Golden winged Warbler could be found at just about every alder swamp along Rte. 515 in the 1980's, today only 50% are occupied by singing males in the spring according to GOWAP canvassers.
A management assessment report is currently being written for the United Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency of the federal government responsible for protecting federally endangered and threatened species. That is the first step in long a process to determine whether the species should be listed; never an apolitical process. While the species is not listed on either the Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey Endangered Species List, it is considered a species of Special Concern. While this status does not confer protection to the bird or its habitat, it is intended to highlight the tenuousness of its existence. It appears that the bird is disappearing faster than government agencies can respond to. Unfortunately, the species should have been listed sooner.
If anyone wants to see a Golden winged Warbler, please drop me an e-mail!
The Stuff Of Legends...
The current administration's grand scheme for instituting sprawl in Vernon is not confined to Intrawest.
The Legends's Resort in conjunction with the Shinnihon USA, the owners of the golf course, have been able to dust off an old development for a new 9 hole course and 674 townhomes for 584 acres surrounding the the former Playboy Club building. This relict approval from the roaring eighties survived expiration by receiving extension after extension from previous Zoning Boards. When finally, the current Zoning Board wanted to retire this application without prejudice because the extension had expired, the Legends owners went to court to contest the Zoning Board actions. They succeeded in reviving their development plan. Vernon once faces another massive housing plan. But the question is, will it get approved?
The Metarie Corporation,Shinnihon USA and the Spring Creek Holdings, Inc would like to cluster their housing in a number of pods. One cluster of several hundreds would be located on west side of Rte. 517 opposite the entrance and exit to the Legends.Another cluster of several hundred would be sited on a small ridge that runs parallel north to south along the railroad bed on the east side of Rte. 517. The rest would be interspersed between the old and new golf course.
On its face, this application should not survive a Zoning Board approval for a variety of legal and community conflicts, however, those issues may be overridden by political dealmaking.
Problem 1: The development that was presented to the Zoning Board depicted that hundreds of homes would be built on steep slopes greater than 15% grade with many occurring on 25% slopes. In fact, 40% of the 584 acres in the subdivision should be unbuildable because it violates Vernon's steep slopes ordinance which prohibits devlopment on 15% slopes or greater.
Problem 2: The forested ridgeline that runs north of the light at McAfee would be denuded of vegetation and studded with rooftops, which would be seen from the Wawayanda, Pochuck and Hamburg Mountain ruining a bucolic viewshed that should protected by Vernon's scenic vistas ordinance.
Problem 3: With 674 units, it is reasonable to believe that each unit can generate a school age child per household. At $8300 per head to educate in Vernon's schools, the cost would easily outstrip whatever ratable the units would generate. Just to educate an additional 674 children would cost Vernon $5,594,200 before calculating ratables. Start building those two new schools!
Problem 4: A simple calculation of 674 units could result in an addition of 1,348 vehicles on Vernon's roadways. If half that number drove to work between 6:00 and 8:00 am, then one could see nearly 700 more vehicles go through the light at McAfee every weekday morning. An incomprehensible number for a country road. Do you want Rte. 517 widened? I don't!
Problem 5: Water availability. The applicant will deftly claim that a letter from United Water will ensure that there is sufficient water for the development from Vernon's sole source aquifer. The applicant will try to persuade the Zoning Board that any water issue must be addressed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and not by Vernon, removing from Vernon an issue that is of the utmost importance for existing businesses and residents of Vernon. The Zoning Board must make the applicant pay for an independent water balance study that investigates not just quantity of the water in the valley but how the development can increase infiltration of man-made materials into our aquifer and how the water diversion will impact existing wells.
Problem 6: Easily the most intriguing,the Legends sewer plant is ancient by today's standards. It is a plant that is plagued by violations in the past and subject of rumors for spray irrigating treated waters in nearby forests. Even though the capacity of the plant is to treat 300,000 gallon per day and it is only processing half that amount, there are great plans for the Legend's plant. Capacity would have to be increased to treat the whole development and the plant modernized to satisfy today's legal standards. Even then, it is doubtful the NJDEP would approve an expansion since the Black Creek is considered impaired by the United States Environmental Protection Agency because high fecal coliform and phosphorous counts exceed EPA standards.
Earlier, I stated that this development should have died an ignominious death over a decade ago. But its survival is directly due to the poltical climate fomented by Mayor John Logan, Deputy Mayor Janet Morrison and Manager Meredith Robson. It is apparent that they have struggled to find a suitable location to treat and deposit the hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated sewerage that Intrawest would generate once their devlopment is built out. Neither did they want to saddle Vernon's taxpayers with the bill to build a sewer line from Vernon to the Sussex County Municipal Utilities plant in Hardyston and then return the treated sewerage back to Vernon.
Instead, an enlarged plant is envisioned for the Legend's facility,one that can treat not just Intrawest's development, but a hotel for Hidden Valley with hundreds of units, the town center and the Legend's development plans. To be operated by SCUMA, the plant would ultimately treat almost a million gallons of effluent per day;most of it going back into the ground by the old Herald Square site just south of Rte. 94. While there has been no public discussion from our elected leaders on this issue, the plans are steaming ahead despite tha fact that none of this is scientifically proven to work or economically feasible.
Meanwhile, the Zoning Board deferred the application until January of 2002. With three board seats up, perhaps, the Mayor is interested in replacing skeptical members with pliant allies to ensure the approval. Poltical deal? Who knows? But If this were monopoly... then we would hear, "You give me the approval for the townhomes then we will give you the sewer plant... deal?" You figure who is doing the talking!
Meanwhile, Vernon residents are kept in the dark while our town leaders prepare to radically alter Vernon's landscape in a few short years.
The Legend's Resort development is a bad idea, a bad development plan and a horrible political deal for Vernon's taxpayers.
Vernon resident, past (resigned 8/23/00) Planning Board member, past (resigned 8/23/00) Environmental Commission chairman and full-time environmental protection advocate Dennis Miranda is the author of
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