Estuaries Series Part 5: Jersey Shores Up
Air Date: Week of December 4, 1998
If you just hurry through New Jersey along the interstate highways, you can get the impression that the state is a gritty concrete jungle of smokestacks and superfund sites. But if you get off the big roads and into state's coastal regions, you'll find plenty of beauty. New Jersey's pine estuaries, forests, and beaches support a sweeping array of plant and animal life and provide a relaxing landscape. In fact, the region is so attractive to human life that development is putting a mighty strain on this complex ecosystem -- a strain that regulators are having a tough time reigning in. In the next installment of our series on America's estuaries, Paul Conlow reports on challenges facing New Jersey's coastal areas -- and what happens when a state attempts to protect both natural resources and real estate.
CURWOOD: If you just hurry through New Jersey along the interstate highways, you can get the impression that the state is a gritty concrete jungle of smokestacks and Superfund sites. But if you get off the big roads and into the state's coastal regions, you'll find plenty of beauty. New Jersey's estuaries, pine forests, and beaches support a sweeping array of plant and animal life and provide a relaxing landscape. In fact, the region is so attractive to human life that development is putting a mighty strain on this complex ecosystem, a strain that regulators are having a tough time reigning in. In the next installment of our series on America's estuaries, Paul Conlow reports on the challenges facing New Jersey's coastal areas and what happens when a state attempts to protect both natural resources and real estate.
(Engines and travel over boards)
CONLOW: The Great Bay Boulevard on the New Jersey coast just north of Atlantic City meanders along a long marshy peninsula and over a series of wooden bridges. On a brilliant fall day the bridges are lined with anglers casting for the fish which are streaming out of the Mullica River and Great Bay Estuary on their annual fall migrations to warmer waters. Among the anglers is Ed Blinn.
BLINN: Heard they've been catching some small stripers. They've had their little striper fishing. And we fish, mainly it's what I've been looking for. And they've been catching a little bit of everything here, some herring, tog, small sea bass. So it's a little bit of everything off this bridge.
CONLOW: Blinn has cast his line into one of the many interlocking estuarine systems that run along the length of the New Jersey coast. Dozens of small rivers and streams fed by vast underground aquifers wind through the sandy soil of New Jersey's pine barrens, through wetlands and salt marshes, and empty into shallow bays sheltered by barrier islands. All manner of marine, plant, and animal life thrive in these estuaries where salt and fresh water mix. People, too, are drawn here, and they are dramatically altering the environment which attracted them in the first place.
CONLOW: Every summer millions of vacationers flock to more than 120 miles of New Jersey ocean beaches. They pump billions of dollars into the state economy. Meanwhile, more and more year round residents are settling near the coast. Ocean County, about 50 miles south of Manhattan, is New Jersey's fastest-growing county. The population has more than doubled in the last 30 years. Sonny Yannon is a realtor in Brick Township, Ocean County. He offers a simple reason for the migration.
YANNON: It's living in the area. You get up on a Saturday morning, you're already at the shore, everything's at your fingertip.
CONLOW: Many of the new residents, he says, have relocated from crowded and expensive communities in north Jersey and New York, trading longer commutes to work for a home near the shore. New construction in Ocean County and throughout New Jersey's coastal areas is regulated by a complex mix of local, regional, state, and Federal laws designed to balance growth with environmental protection. State officials, for instance, must approve construction in ocean and bay shore communities. And regional zoning rules limit and in some cases stop development in more than 1 million acres of environmentally sensitive pine lands. Not everyone agrees on the effectiveness or the fairness of the regulations. Sonny Yannon says zoning laws which limit development in environmentally sensitive areas are unfair to land owners whose properties lose value when development is restricted.
YANNON: There are people that have their lifetime savings tied up in land and they lose it without compensation. Certainly I don't think anybody would agree that's right. I tend to think that development is something that can be achieved without destroying the environment.
CONLOW: Environmental activists also find the complex regulations frustrating, but for different reasons. Willy DeCamp is president of Save Barnegat Bay, the Ocean County branch of the Isaac Walton League. He says too much new development is allowed in the region through rule waivers and loopholes in regulations.
DeCAMP: You get these complex interactions of overlapping interrelated laws, which few people can understand and which things slip through. And which are very hard to watchdog because it's hard for anyone to understand them.
CONLOW: There are many consequences to the growth in Ocean County and DeCamp and a group of volunteers grapple with one of them.
(Loud clanking sounds; engines)
CONLOW: They've spent a brisk autumn morning combing trash and debris from a 1,200-acre wildlife refuge on Barnegat Bay in Brick Township. Vinny Turner of the US Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the volunteers and describes some of the day's haul.
TURNER: Anything from plastic culverts to old wire fencing, some bicycles to empty 55-gallon drums to more than enough cinder blocks to shake a stick at.
(Much clanking and bumping of trash)
CONLOW: This tract once was slated to become an 800-unit housing development, but Save Barnegat Bay spearheaded an effort to purchase the land bit by bit and preserve it as a wildlife refuge. Conservation efforts like this one have become a high priority in New Jersey where voters recently approved a ballot measure to preserve open space. At one time, DeCamp says, local officials welcomed new development as a source of tax revenues. But they found that as populations grew, so did the taxes it needed to pay for more community services, infrastructure, and schools. Now he says officials in heavily developed communities embrace open space preservation, recognizing that by keeping down development they keep taxes down, too.
DeCAMP: As towns approach build out, public officials become very much aware that the tax ratable chase did not work. So, you know, we have the most wonderful relationship with the public officials here in Brick Township, where, you know, we sit down together and try to figure out conservation projects.
CONLOW: Prospects of land conservation are improving. So, too, is water quality in the bay and ocean. That's in part because Ocean County has eliminated major stationary, or point sources, of water pollution, like municipal sewage and industrial waste. But this county, which depends on underground aquifers for drinking water, still must tackle nonpoint pollution sources associated with heavy development, like pesticides and fertilizers which wash off lawns.
SCROW: Most of the problem has been shown to be nonpoint source pollution, which comes from a variety of sources and land use types that are harder to identify and harder to control.
CONLOW: That's Bob Scrow, who represents the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on the Barnegat Bay Estuary Program. The 2,000 square mile watershed was accepted into the national program in 1995. Since then, program officials have been preparing a comprehensive management plan for the region, which will address ways to reduce nonpoint sources of pollution. The planning process is a year behind schedule, a pace which frustrates some environmentalists. But others say the plan and the environmental protections it will provide will be worth the wait.
CONLOW: Snow geese launch themselves from salt marshes in a Federal wildlife refuge in the Great Bay-Mullica River Estuary. The casinos of Atlantic City are clearly visible across the bay, and trees blazing with autumn colors intermingle with green pines on the mainland. Refuges like this one are popular with ecotourists, who are becoming more important to the Jersey Shore economy. Gloria Goldschrafe is spending the day with her husband Carl observing some of the more than 300 bird species which visit the refuge every year, from bald eagles to peregrine falcons to snowy owls.
GOLDSCHRAFE: We just saw the little pie-billed grebe up there, and a coot, coot's a nice little old bird. So when they call me an old coot I don't care. (Laughs) They're cute. In fact, there it is now; it just came into view.
(More bird calls)
CONLOW: Scientists say this Great Bay-Mullica River system is one of the most pristine estuaries in the northeastern United States, in part because of the rules and regulations which control growth and protect water quality in the region. The continuing health of this estuary and of estuarine environments all along the New Jersey coast depend in large part on whether these complex rules, regulations, and management plans can work effectively in the face of development pressures. For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Conlow.
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