The New Jersey Natural Lands Trust has 30,000 great reasons to celebrate its 50th anniversary!

That’s how many acres were preserved since the Trust was created by the state Legislature in 1968. The Trust is an independent agency with a mission to preserve land in its natural state for public enjoyment and the protection of habitat for rare plants and animals.

“Our lands are probably some of the best biodiversity hotspots in the state,” said Michael Catania, executive director of Duke Farms in Hillsborough, who serves as volunteer chairman of the Trust.

Unlike many state parks and forests that encompass hundreds or thousands of acres, most of the lands owned by the NJ Natural Lands Trust are relatively small … and many of them were donated.

“The typical donation is almost invisible,” noted Catania. Often, donors are older couples who want to see their land permanently preserved, or family members who have inherited property that they don’t want to keep but don’t want to see developed.

The Trust’s 110 preserves range in size from less than one acre – like the tiny Kislow Preserve in Stafford Township – to the 3,080-acre Crossley Preserve in Berkeley and Manchester Townships.  Because the properties are natural lands rather than parks with amenities and facilities, they need less maintenance.

Right now, the Trust’s most high-profile pending donation is Petty’s Island in Pennsauken, in the middle of the Delaware River between New Jersey and Philadelphia.

Accessible by a two-lane bridge, Petty’s Island includes 350 acres – half forested and half open – surrounded by 150 acres of tidal lands. The southern end of the island has stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline.

The CITGO Petroleum Company, which owns Petty’s Island, is currently removing oil storage tanks and completing a comprehensive cleanup of the island. A marine shipping terminal on the island stopped operations earlier this year.

Once the cleanup is done, the island will be donated to the Trust. The Trust plans to open it to the public for passive recreation, including hiking and bird watching, and transform the marine shipping terminal on the Delaware River into a glass-walled nature center.

“Petty’s Island a pretty phenomenal area for migrating birds, and it’s unique because of its urban location and industrial past,” said Catania, who feels that Petty’s Island can become something akin to a Central Park for Camden, but with its main focus on nature.

To build the nature center, the NJ Natural Lands Trust will need to raise millions of dollars through donations and grants … something most state agencies don’t do!

“The NJ Natural Lands Trust is the closest thing we have to a nonprofit in state government,” explained Catania. “It’s really a unique organization.” The Trust has no operating budget, although the state does provide staff assistance.

Once land is preserved by the Trust, it enjoys an extraordinary level of protection. Trust lands cannot be diverted for other uses or condemned by municipal, county or state agencies. In fact, in 50 years, no Trust property has ever been condemned – something that donors find reassuring.

The NJ Natural Lands Trust is run by an 11-member Board of Trustees who come from several state agencies, including the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. A majority of the members are appointed by the Governor from a list of nominees from the New Jersey nonprofit conservation community.

“Having a diverse membership really gives us an opportunity to be a conservation coordinating group,” Catania said.

For example, after Superstorm Sandy destroyed Delaware Bay beaches in October 2012, the Trust sprang into action on behalf of migrating shorebirds like the red knot. Red knots depend on spring stopovers in New Jersey. A committee of Trust members helped coordinate fundraising to restore Delaware Bay beaches in time for horseshoe crabs to lay eggs in the spring, providing a critical food for red knots and other birds who leave New Jersey to complete their long-distance migration to the Arctic.

Happy 50th anniversary to the NJ Natural Lands Trust … and may the next 50 years be just as successful!

The Trust’s 2017 annual report was just named “New Jersey Document of the Year” by the Documents Association of New Jersey, which promotes the use of and access to government information. Go to the Trust’s website at www.nj.gov/dep/njnlt/index.htm and click the link to the annual report.

To see the trailer for a video on Petty’s Island produced by the NJ Natural Lands Trust, go to https://vimeo.com/263874968.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.

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