Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
Everyone -- Almost -- Wants to Save Sterling

by Becky Steckler

Democrats and Republicans have finally found an environmental issue they can agree on. Everyone, even Newt Gingrich, has come out in support of preserving the 20,000 acres of pristine wetlands and hardwood stands in New York and New Jersey that make up Sterling Forest.

Club activists in both states have been fighting for the past 10 years to protect Sterling Forest. Over 2 million New Jersey residents depend on its watershed for clean drinking water. Many others depend on its trails, lakes and waterfalls for recreation and peace-of-mind. The forest is under immediate threat from a plan to build 13,000 homes and develop 8 million square feet of commercial and industrial space by the current owner, the Swiss Insurance Group of Zurich. Environmentalists say the development will be detrimental to New Jersey's drinking water, necessitate costly water treatment plants for residential and industrial wastes and result in increased traffic and air pollution.

Sterling Forest is one of the largest contiguous areas of open space in the Northeast, and if the development proceeds, "its beauty will be reduced to little more than dramatic landscape for suburban sprawl," said Club activist William O'Hearn.

Sterling advocates like O'Hearn have attended public hearings, collected petitions, conducted postcard campaigns and written letters-to-the-editor to raise awareness of the preservation campaign. They persuaded Passaic County officials to buy 2,076 acres of the forest in New Jersey in 1988. And in June 1995, they won a substantial victory when Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) succeeded in passing S. 719, authorizing $17.5 million for Sterling's purchase. Reps. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) are pushing for passage of a companion bill in the House, H.R. 400.

Last fall, Club members in Oklahoma voiced their opposition to a bill introduced by Reps. William Martini (R-N.J.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) that would have raised money for the purchase of Sterling by auctioning off public lands in Oklahoma. According to Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club's lands program, passage of this bill would have set a dangerous precedent for swapping federal lands to purchase environmentally sensitive lands.

"This bill promotes the idea that the federal government owns too much public land and that we should be selling it to the states and private citizens," said Griffin. "Preservation of our forests, streams and rivers in one area should not mean removing protection from another." Lucas withdrew his support from the bill after a massive outcry from constituents who felt betrayed by his willingness to sell off the state's public lands.

The Sterling Forest bill is currently being held up in a House Resources subcommittee, chaired by James Hansen (R-Utah). Hansen has threatened to hold H.R. 400 unless committee members vote for his sham "wilderness" bill that marginally protects 1.8 million acres of Utah wilderness.

If federal funding is approved, New York and New Jersey have pledged approximately $20 million dollars toward Sterling's purchase. Another $5 million has been pledged by private interests. The Trust for Public Land and the Open Space Institute are currently negotiating with the owners to purchase the property.

"It's too often in these times that we watch the passing of things held dear," said O'Hearn. "Once gone, Sterling Forest will be lost forever. There will be no second chance."

To take action: Contact House Speaker Newt Gingrich at (202) 225-2501. Urge him to break the logjam and bring H.R. 400 to the floor. Emphasize that the preservation of Sterling Forest must not be linked to environmental degradation elsewhere or attached to any other environmentally sensitive proposals.

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