Booming interest in NJ’s outdoors during pandemic shows value of nature
Photo Caption: NJ Department of Environmental Protection
While the interest in wildlife-oriented recreational opportunities has grown, development is encroaching on wildlife every year.
In New Jersey, the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found that 794,000 people hunted, fished and more than 2.4 million people participated in other recreational activities.
The survey said that while demand continues to be strong, the overall amount of land available for the pursuit of wildlife-oriented recreation is declining. New Jersey loses about 45 square miles of wildlife habitat to development every year.
Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration have tried keep parks and wildlife management areas open during the pandemic. Ray Bukowski, assistant commissioner of Natural and Historic Resources for the Department of Environmental Protection, said that's because outdoor recreation is something that everyone can do safely and it's important to our mental health to get outside and do things in nature.
"The pandemic has rekindled a lot of the society's interest in outdoor recreation. The visitation this past year was and remains incredibly high. Being able to provide this access in such a difficult time and exemplifying New Jersey's resources is the most rewarding part of our collective jobs at the DEP," Bukowski said.
Real estate is a finite resource and New Jersey is a densely populated state, he said. But he said New Jersey has been successful in protecting and acquiring open space.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Green Acres Program, which acquires land for state parks, wildlife management areas and natural areas.
The state DEP maintains about 800,000 acres of land that have been acquired through the Green Acres Program, said Bukowski. The management of these open spaces is critical to achieving certain goals such as mitigating climate change, improving air quality and protecting water quality.
Also, maintaining resilience for communities and providing access for the public to pursue healthy outdoor recreation, all while allowing for wildlife habitats is crucial. The balance of those interests is known as "stewarding the land."
Bukowski said that society has many needs, including economic development, transportation, housing and food. The development of farms is essential, for example.
"The critical link is in the balance of maintaining the quality of life for all of our residents and that really underpins what we do in acquiring and maintaining lands to support those resources for the overall benefit and health of our population," he said.
He said the state legislation and current administration has valued open space acquisition. But for individuals, small acts matter. When someone visits an open space, leave it better than when you arrived. Picking up garbage and properly disposing it is just one way to help manage open spaces and protect wildlife.
A huge component of the state economy is the thriving fisheries, both freshwater and in the marine environments, he said. Many other outdoor and recreational activities enhanced by wildlife include camping, hiking, hunting, boating and kayaking.