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Clean Water Wins in New Jersey

Image Credit: The Land Conservancy of New Jersey

Five OSI-supported acquisitions help The Land Conservancy of New Jersey establish the Yards Creek Preserve

The forests of Yards Creek in northwestern New Jersey are a special place. Stunningly beautiful and brimming with wildlife, the land also serves a purpose unnoticed to hikers and other forest explorers – filtering water as it collects and feeds local reservoirs.

Knowing the importance of protecting this critical but fragile landscape, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, with support from the Open Space Institute, set its sights on creating a 1,000-acre local nature preserve to guarantee its protection into the future. Over the past four years, the Conservancy has been acquiring properties in the forested headwaters of the Paulins Kill River in Blairstown Township.

It hasn’t been easy. There were many parcels, negotiations with landowners took time, and the need to secure contiguous tracts made the task of assembling land for the creation of the preserve particularly challenging.

Restoration efforts within Yards Creek Preserve have involved tree planting to reduce sediment flowing into the river.
Restoration efforts within Yards Creek Preserve have involved tree planting to reduce sediment flowing into the river.
Image Credit: The Land Conservancy of New Jersey

But the thorniest problem of all was money. Finding the match required for the Conservancy to draw on the State of New Jersey’s highly effective Green Acres conservation grant program and other funding sources proved to be a stumbling block for continuing conservation. The Conservancy turned to OSI for help.

“The Delaware Watershed Initiative and OSI have been critical to our success,” says Sandy Urgo, Director of Land Preservation for the Conservancy.

With OSI grants totaling almost $500,000, the Conservancy has been able to complete five separate acquisitions totaling 286 acres in this critical watershed and establish Yards Creek Preserve.

Together, these properties constitute just a handful of the 56 land protection projects that OSI’s Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund, created with support from the William Penn Foundation, has supported across the Delaware River Watershed since 2014. These efforts have led directly to the conservation of 20,000 acres of priority watershed lands, and protected drinking water resources for 15 million residents in Wilmington, Trenton, Philadelphia, New York City, and beyond.

Forests as a filter for clean water

The early successes at Yards Creek have helped to build support and momentum for the preserve, located in the shadow of the Kittatinny Ridge, and the 76,000-acre Delaware Gap National Recreation Area. Both are situated in a relatively undeveloped part of the New Jersey Highlands.

With the preserve’s creation, clean headwater streams flowing through these forests will be permanently protected and can continue to provide clean water while mitigating flooding along the Paulins Kill River, a major tributary to the Delaware River, the source of drinking water for 15 million people. (A 2020 OSI report, Preserving Natural Flood Defenses, describes the role of land protection in mitigating flooding.)

Video: 'Keepin' It Clean'

Watch a video by filmmaker Todd Leatherman on the progress being made to protect the Paulins Kill River, a major tributary of the Delaware River.

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“We know that protecting forests is essential to keeping the water clean for people and wildlife downstream,” says Bill Rawlyk, Mid-Atlantic field director for OSI. “These conservation successes are achieving critical watershed and climate protection of the Delaware River Watershed and moreover is demonstrating for others the role forest conservation plays in ensuring clean water.”

By protecting the forested headwaters of the Paulins Kill, the growing swath of protected land also helps to increase the effectiveness of significant restoration work downstream. Recently a large impoundment on the lower Paulins Kill used for hydroelectric power was removed, restoring fish passage that had been blocked for many decades and allowing the return of the spawning migration of American shad into the river. Other restoration efforts have involved tree planting to reduce sediment flowing into the river.

Keeping it wild for wildlife — and hikers

The protected land also provides habitat for several state-designated threatened and endangered species, including the long-eared bat, bobcat, timber rattlesnake, and rare nesting migratory birds such as cerulean warbler. The landscape also provides options for animals to move and adjust to changes in temperature and precipitation, which will be critical as the climate changes.

In addition, the project lies immediately below the Appalachian Trail and along Raccoon Ridge, a high point that is an important site in New Jersey for counting and monitoring the autumn hawk migration along the Kittatinny Ridge.

For his part, Rob Moorhead, Mayor of Blairstown — where Yards Creek is located — gushes about the newly created preserve. “This is a very important project for our town and region. It is just a beautiful, unique piece of land that protects wildlife and contributes to the character of our town.”

“We have a responsibility to protect the forestland that can absorb runoff and rainwater that might otherwise flow into the Paulins Kill,” he adds.

To welcome hikers, the preserve will open this summer to the public with trails and limited parking. Enterprising hikers will be able to access the Delaware Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania and The Appalachian Trail.

Far from resting on its laurels, the Conservancy is working to protect a sixth parcel, one of about 20 it has identified for protection in the coming years.

“We view this area as one of New Jersey’s most critical and vanishing natural landscapes and as long as there is funding available to continue to protect land along the Kittatinny Ridge, we will continue to add to this preserve,” said Urgo.

“The Open Space Institute has been a vitally important partner in this effort, and we look forward to completing many more transactions with them, increasing the significance of Yards Creek Preserve in the future.”

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