Wildlife Oasis Needs Protection. Urban Development and Pollution Threaten New Jersey's Great Swamp Refuge. ENVIRONMENT: ENDANGERED REFUGE

Article excerpt

ONLY 26 miles west of the hurly-burly of New York's Times Square, suburbia's shopping malls and parking lots give way to nearly 7,000 acres of swamp woodland, cattail marsh, and grassland.

Nestled in a shallow basin ringed by flat-topped ridges, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for 300 species of wildlife, including mink, foxes, great blue herons, and American black ducks. Each year, it also attracts 300,000 visitors, who find the Great Swamp an oasis of open space in the nation's most densely settled state.

The Great Swamp was declared a National Wildlife Refuge in 1960, after a year-long battle that pitted a grass-roots coalition of Morris County citizens against the New York and New Jersey Port Authority's proposal to pave the wetlands into the metropolitan area's fourth jetport.

Now the Great Swamp Refuge faces a far more insidious foe - encroaching urbanization.

Recently the Wilderness Society listed the Great Swamp Refuge among the 10 "most endangered" refuges in the national system. In its report, the national conservation group declared that the wildlife refuge system was badly neglected by the Reagan administration, and "is now at the low point of its 85-year history."

The most serious problems facing many of the 445 national wildlife refuges include chemical runoff from farming, timber cutting and oil drilling on refuge land, and commercial development on refuge boundaries, according to the society. "These actions are robbing the nation's beleaguered wildlife of habitat," the report said. "More and more wildlife is becoming homeless every day."

In placing the Great Swamp Refuge on its 10-most-endangered list, the society said waste water containing highly toxic PCBs has been found in effluent flowing directly into the refuge from two sewage treatment plants. Fertilizer and pesticides in water runoff from lawns also pollute the Great Swamp.

The wetland area is further scarred by a five-acre asbestos dump "which is serious enough to be a Superfund candidate, and two landfills that may contain hazardous substances," the Wilderness Society reports.

"We can't keep abusing the Great Swamp and expect to see it survive as we've known it," says Bill Reffalt, the Wilderness Society's program director for national wildlife refuges. "If action isn't taken to save it, [the Great Swamp] will be doomed within 20 years."

ON a gray, late winter day at the Great Swamp Refuge, the sun struggles to highlight the naked branches of large old oak trees and the tips of last year's cattails. Bill Koch, manager of the refuge, sights a red-shouldered hawk heading for a patch of moist woodland. The wildlands belie the great maw of urban sprawl lying just beyond the refuge's boundaries.

Mr. Koch agrees with the Wilderness Society's contention that many of the refuge's most serious problems are tied to growing residential and commercial development within the Great Swamp watershed.

"Home rule," whereby each of the watershed's 11 municipalities makes land use decisions independently, fosters uncoordinated sprawl, according to Koch. …


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