Environmentalists, U.S. work to save key estuary in booming N.J. county

May 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

FORKED RIVER, N.J. -- Piece by piece, salt marsh by salt marsh, environmentalists and the federal government are pushing to preserve the last tracts of undeveloped shoreline along Barnegat Bay, the shallow 75-square-mile estuary that is one of the least heralded but most important coastal resources in the northeastern United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aided by local and national conservation groups, has expanded its Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge northward along the New Jersey coast to acquire open marshland squeezed between condominiums and expensive waterfront homes that have spread along the bay over the last four decades.

About 7,000 acres have been approved for purchase, pending congressional appropriations, and another 6,600 acres are being studied for acquisition for the Forsythe refuge. The refuge already includes 40,000 acres of wetlands in separate clusters, like an emerald necklace. It is the second largest in the service's Northeast region of 13 states between North Carolina and Canada, after the Great Dismal Swamp refuge in Virginia and North Carolina.

While some hunters, boaters and clammers chafe at the restrictions in the refuge, environmentalists and officials are eager to preserve more shoreline and say the current recession and decline in real-estate prices are aiding their effort.

"The last few years have been a window of opportunity to add valuable land to the refuge," said Rose Harvey, regional vice president of the Trust for Public Land, which acquires environmentally important land for the public. "The opportunity may not exist in the future."

Housing and recreational development, which accelerated during the 1980s, degraded water quality and imperiled tidal wetland along Barnegat Bay's 30-mile length. The bay is a crucial link in the Atlantic flyway for migratory waterfowl, federal and state officials said.

The entire bay, from Bay Head in the north to the Long Beach Island causeway in the south, and most of its watershed lie in Ocean County, the fastest-growing county in the nation's most densely populated state. The year-round population of the county is about 450,000, up from 56,000 in 1950. In the summer, when visitors flock to the beaches and weekend boaters jam the broad bay and estuaries like the Metedeconk River, Toms River and Forked River, the population doubles to about 1 million.

Even with this tremendous growth, and with New York City and Philadelphia barely 90 minutes away by car, Barnegat Bay seemed to retain its natural charm and beauty. It endured heavy recreational use in the summer, but recovered over the winter, residents and visitors believed. There was little industry to pollute local waters.

But changes were taking place over the years that damaged the flyway habitat for tens of thousands of migratory birds that spent at least part of the year on the bay, said Willy deCamp Jr., president of the Izaak Walton League of Ocean County, an environmental group instrumental in obtaining wetlands for the refuge.

By the 1970s federal and state laws had slowed down the wholesale depletion of wetlands through drainage and filling. Permits were no longer routinely issued for lagoons to be dredged out of the shoreline so houses and marinas could rise behind bulkheads, man-made barriers to keep the shore from eroding.

By this time, however, bulkheads had been built along most of the northern bay and its estuaries, preventing water from washing onshore and filtering out impurities, and the marshes and meadows had been replaced by waterfront cottages and expensive homes. Ocean County lost 30 percent of its tidal marsh acreage between 1953 and 1973.

Two strokes of fortune helped preserve the bay shoreline north of Barnegat Inlet, the sole break in 30 miles of barrier island separating the bay from the ocean.

In the early 1950s, the state bought the Phipps Estate, an eight-mile long section of the barrier island immediately north of the inlet, and made it a public park left essentially in its natural state, now called Island Beach State Park.

The other factor was the bay's shallow waters, which range from 1 to 13 feet in depth. Mud-covered shoals and marshes discouraged building along the waterfront if no channels opened to deeper water. It is these undeveloped waterfront lands, for the most part, that are sought for the refuge.

But the lands behind the wetlands were developed for housing, roadways and shopping centers. Brick Township on the mainland just west of the upper bay went from scrub pine woods to a community of more than 65,000, and many of the residents were daily commuters to northern New Jersey and New York. Other subdivisions spread through Dover, Berkeley, Lacey, Ocean and Stafford Townships to the south along the bay, while Manchester Township, in the headwaters of the Toms River, filled with retirement communities.

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