This column has been a discussion of the issues we are concerned about in the Highlands.
As we approach the end of our first year having a regular column in the New Jersey Hills family of media, we decided it would be appropriate to get a little more personal this time and to ask ourselves what motivates us to do what we do.
Why would I devote a professional career to protecting the water and other natural and cultural resources of the New Jersey Highlands? It certainly isn’t the pay. Non-profit salaries are considerably lower than a comparable position in the for-profit sector—although there are other aspects of non-profit work, such as a greater potential for job satisfaction, and more flexibility, which ease the pay discrepancy.
Is it because of the pleasure derived from advocating for the drinking water supply that 70 percent of New Jersey’s population depends on? No, not really. It is important work, but with development pressures constantly rising, it can be a formidable challenge, exhausting at times and a job that is never finished.
Many believed that, once the Highlands Act was passed in 2004, the environmentalists won, and that battle was over.
Hardly. There are constant efforts to weaken, or repeal, the legislation, back-pedal on the rules and to undermine the Highlands Council. The Highlands Act’s 17 different exemptions and waiver provisions keep the bulldozers active while we keep an eye out and blow the whistle when an exemption is too liberally granted.
Why do I personally do this then? For me, it is actually about protecting beauty, the beauty of the landscapes around me. I believe beauty is worth fighting for.
After college, in the late 1980s, I moved from thickly suburban West Orange, in Essex County, to Harding Township, in Morris County. Friends of mine were sharing a house on 17 acres of land, owned by an elderly woman who believed that young people fresh out of college deserved a break. When a friend decided it was time to move on, I moved in. My share of the rent was $45/month.
I fell in love with the abundance of open spaces here. At one end of town was Jockey Hollow. At the other, the Great Swamp. In between were bridle trails, farm fields, and forested hillsides. I became an avid hiker, bike rider and gardener.
At the time, there was a huge development surge in Morris County. People were moving out of the cities and out of the suburbs and into the country. Clusters of townhouses and condo complexes and large lot single family home developments alike were springing up everywhere with silly euphemistic names like “Windmill Pond”, and “Mountain Shadows,” names appropriate for places left unspoiled.
Major corporations were moving into the area, clearcutting huge tracts of forests for office buildings and parking lots. Municipalities were in a mad race for ratables. With no end in sight, Morris County was in danger of transforming into the thick suburbia I had escaped from in Essex County.
Beauty comes in two basic forms: Natural, or manmade; contemporary or ancient/old. Here, a great deal of New Jersey’s natural beauty was being destroyed. It pained me so deeply that I became a warrior. First, as a volunteer and later as a professional.
But no matter how urgent, you cannot legislate the protection of beauty. I may decry the sacrifice of 25 acres of natural beauty for an ugly monument to personal bad taste some would call a McMansion.
Even I would have to admit that the lost beauty I experienced in the 25 acres of forest is highly subjective, as is my determining the resulting development as ugly.
To confuse things even more, beauty can sometimes be found in the ugly. PSE&G’s imposing, 120-foot-tall steel towers of the Susquehanna-Roseland Transmission Line, a project that I spent significant resources opposing, I must admit, have an inspiring majesty when I come across them today—stark, latticework giants in formation, rising high above the forest canopy.
What can be legislated, however, is the necessary protection of New Jersey’s water and other valuable public trust resources.
The Highlands forest produces, filters and stores our water supply. It also filters our air, prevents flooding, absorbs and stores carbon, provides habitat for wildlife, and offers us an abundant variety of outdoor recreation options.
All of these aspects of the natural landscape are necessary for a high quality of life and a stable economy, and therefore we protect them by regulating development or by purchasing either the land or the landowner’s development rights.
Again, however, for me, it is about beauty. Fortunately, I am not alone in this response to the natural world. It is the reason that our Annual Juried Art Show is such a success. Fine artists, photographers and sculptors, similarly moved by the Highlands, submit their interpretations of that natural beauty.
Here at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, we are always battling. Whether we are in the courtroom challenging a state permit issued under what we see as questionable circumstances, or opposing an inappropriately large development before a municipal land use board, or advocating DEP (state Department of Environmental Protection) for stronger water quality regulations, or recommending to the Governor an individual to appoint to the Highlands Council, or testifying at a legislative hearing in support of a bill that will better protect the Highlands core forest, know that we are fighting to protect, among other things, beauty—because beauty is worth fighting for.