AMTRAK passengers heading west from New York City are often
surprised to find they are suddenly surrounded by wetlands in an
otherwise dense urban development area just east of Newark.
The state of New Jersey has what some experts consider the
strongest freshwater wetlands protection law in the nation. Yet
environmentalists here say it takes constant monitoring to keep the
law tough and the bulldozers out.
Development pressure is strong and growing. An estimated
two-thirds of the original wetlands acreage in the Hackensack
Meadowlands, for instance, the area visible from the Amtrak windows,
has already been lost, according to the US Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA). By conservative estimates, the US itself loses some
200,000 acres of wetlands each year.
The struggle to preserve more of New Jersey's wetlands takes on
added significance when viewed against the backdrop of the strong
political fight now under way in Washington to tighten the federal
definition of wetlands.
President Bush vowed during his 1988 campaign there would be "no
net loss" in US wetlands. Yet under strong pressure from farmers and
developers, the Bush administration is now considering a newly
restrictive definition of wetlands, stipulating that they include
more water, that it be closer to the surface and visible for over a
longer period of time than previously required.
Many New Jersey environmentalists and state officials have
written in protest to the administration. Among them is Gov. James
Florio who just last week proposed a water-quality bond issue that
would set aside $100 million to preserve open space along waterways.
If approved by the New Jersey Legislature, it would go on the ballot
If Washington's definition of wetlands is narrowed, most of the
forested areas of New Jersey would no longer qualify because the
state relies on the federal wetlands description, says Abigail Fair,
coordinator of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Campaign.
That broad coalition is largely responsible for the state's
strong 1987 wetlands law calling for a 150-foot buffer between
wetlands and any development.
Ms. Fair says she thinks any change in Washington could also spur
efforts to weaken New Jersey's law and confuse the state's current
$4 million effort, almost finished, to map the location of its
"We need (a strong) national law to help us preserve what we've
got," insists Ed Lloyd, director of the Rutgers Environmental Law
Clinic in Newark.
New Jersey environmentalists also face ample challenges on the
home front. The tough state law suffered a sharp setback last
December when New Jersey Attorney General Robert Del Tufo issued a
ruling exempting from wetlands protection developer proposals
submitted before a certain date for subdivision or site-plan