President's Corner | Sharyn Magee

President’s Corner: PennEast Revisited

In January 2018, a Conditional Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity was issued to PennEast by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), giving PennEast the right of eminent domain. This certificate was issued without a thorough survey of the flora and fauna of all affected properties and waterways. With only 35% of the properties surveyed, it is impossible to accurately assess the environmental impact of the PennEast pipeline. Many of the unsurveyed properties are lands that were preserved because of their value for protecting New Jersey’s unsustainably diminishing flora and fauna. These properties include Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) that protect threatened habitats which harbor many New Jersey species of conservation concern and threatened and endangered species. Washington Crossing Audubon Society (WCAS) has documented many of these species in our filings to FERC. WCAS citizen scientists have made the most extensive surveys at Baldpate Mountain. WCAS has repeatedly made the argument that if the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is proven to be significantly deficient in the best studied area, the FEIS must be considered to be so incomplete as to be invalid. The NJDEP has not issued the final permits needed for this project to proceed. The certificate should not have been given on the basis of a flawed FEIS and before all the needed permits were issued.

PennEast is expected to request permission from FERC to start tree cutting along the proposed route before the final permits are issued. WCAS is concerned about the environmental damage that preliminary tree cutting would cause along the pipeline route. WCAS has urged NJDEP to tell FERC that no tree cutting is allowed before the final permits are issued. Unnecessary and significant damage would be incurred along the proposed route if the pipeline was not built or if the route was altered.

WCAS is also concerned about the proposed horizontal drilling proposed at the Moore’s Creek tributary crossing on Baldpate. Significant blasting could alter the hydrology of the system of small creeks that drain the north slope of Baldpate and eventually flow into Moore’s Creek. Several of these streams flow year- round, providing a critical source of water in water stressed times. The presence of breeding Louisiana Waterthrush indicates the high water quality of these streams. PennEast has stated that they will try horizontal drilling twice and then use the open trench method, which could cause significant and permanent damage to the fragile raised wetland bordering the tributary and the amphibians and reptiles that depend upon it.

WCAS is especially concerned about the effect of preliminary tree cutting and other ecological disturbances at Baldpate Mountain, which is highly sensitive to environmental disturbances due to its small size, its long and narrow shape which enhances edge effect, its fragile thin diabase soils, and the raised wetlands perched on top of nearly impenetrable diabase bedrock. WCAS has documented several species of conservation concern in the direct path of the pipeline route.   The pipeline route would bisect a cedar woods used as a winter roost by the New Jersey threatened Long-eared Owls. Long-eared Owl winter roosts were also documented at two sites in Hunterdon Count adjacent to the pipeline route in a joint study by WCAS and NJ Conservation Foundation.

A pair of the state threatened Barred Owls was heard duetting in March in the vicinity of the pipeline route. Barred Owls were also reported at Baldpate in the springs of 2013 and 2014. The timing of the reports track the Eastern Chipmunk population explosions of 2012 and 2017, suggesting that Baldpate is an important hunting ground for these owls in breeding season, especially in years when chipmunks are abundant.

NJ listed birds documented as confirmed breeding in the pipeline route during a ten-year breeding bird census at Baldpate include NJ special concern species Wood Thrush, Veery, and Worm-eating Warbler. NJ special concern Yellow-breasted Chats breed in the Hunter meadow and along the powerline ROW adjacent to the pipeline route. The endangered breeding Red-shouldered Hawk bred on the north side of Baldpate in the 2017. Clear cutting the pipeline route would bring the edge closer to the breeding territories of interior woodland specialists Hooded and Kentucky Warblers. Baldpate is a stronghold of these species.

Several Eastern Box Turtles were found along or adjacent to the pipeline route in the breeding season by WCAS citizen scientists. The location of the hibernaculums is not known but considering the small range of the home territories, the hibernaculums are almost certainly in or adjacent to the pipeline route.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS


President’s Corner: A Sense of Place

Developing a sense of place in a people who have no deep ties to the land is a major challenge to the environmental movement. An intellectual understanding of ecology and conservation is a necessary but not sufficient requirement of building a sustainable grass roots environmental movement. People need a sense of deep connection with the land to create the emotional engagement necessary to sustain a lasting environmental ethic. In a highly mobile society where few people have deep roots, developing a sense of place is especially challenging.

The urgent question is how to evoke an environmental consciousness in a populace with no deep connections to the place where they live. Typical of our generation, my husband and I moved to New Jersey because of employment. Neither of us had any connection to the history or the land. My family did have a strong land ethic and love of nature with deep roots in rural Virginia. Roaming the fields and woods of my aunt’s farm nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and encountering its wondrous flora and fauna cemented my love of nature. In time the love of nature inspired by the Virginia foothills transferred to a connection with all wild places, including the nature preserves of the Hopewell Valley where I now live. The most deeply committed conservationists I know can tell a similar story of a special place encountered when young. Developing a deep love of nature and a sense of place starts with exposure to the natural world while young.

Young children have a sense of wonder and a natural affinity towards the natural world, but it is important to expose them to nature before other interests distract them. My grandchildren started hiking as toddlers in backpacks as did their parents. The oldest grandchildren now point out birds for me to name as we hike, send me pictures of birds to identify, and are beginning to learn the local bird songs. With children, exposure is everything.

Because of the urgency of the problem of unsustainably diminishing wildlife and native flora, we cannot only engage the young, as important as it is, and then wait for the next generation of young conservationists to grow up. Sensitizing adults who have lost or never had a sense of wonder for the natural world is a more difficult challenge. Exposing adults to charismatic species such as birds is a good starting point. Hopefully as people bird their local “hot spots” they make connections between birds and habitats and begin to care about the conserving the places they bird. Take a friend or relative birding. That act may help start a movement.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS

President’s Corner: The Sixth Extinction

Conservation biologists Paul Ehrlich and Gerardo Ceballos have raised the alarm about the impending human driven sixth extinction in their book, The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Nature, a must read for anyone concerned about the loss of biodiversity, and in a formal paper in the journal Science. In the latter article Ceballos, Ehrlich, et al conclude that “The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.”

I agree that the impending loss of biodiversity is the most serious aspect of the current ecological crisis and the most neglected by those in power. The loss of biodiversity is easy to overlook because populations die out slowly in in the human time frame, although quickly in the geological time frame. The loss of breeding populations is barely noticeable but as each population is lost, the species edges closer to extinction. Those of us who have been observing birds for decades notice a loss of numbers and of species but today’s diminished biodiversity seems normal to the young. Most ecosystems are resilient enough to adjust to the loss of a few species but as losses build up or a critical keystone species is lost, a point of no return is reached and ecosystems collapse, go through a period of chaotic instability, and reestablish themselves as less complex ecosystems with fewer species and interconnections. While no major terrestrial ecosystem has yet collapsed, several regional marine ecosystems have experienced ecosystem collapses resulting in a loss of vertebrate dominated ecosystems and their replacement with jellyfish dominated ecosystems, a simplified marine ecosystem that ruled the oceans over 300 million years ago.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is the prime driver of species extinction accounting for the unsustainable decline of more than seventy percent of the species at risk for extinction. Climate change and pollution exacerbate the problem by degrading habitats. The loss of biodiversity is universal. Tropical regions with their greater biodiversity are experiencing the greatest loss of numbers of individuals and species but temperate regions are suffering a higher percentage of loss. Migratory birds that rely upon temperate breeding grounds, tropical wintering grounds, and refueling and resting stops in-between are especially vulnerable. An astonishing thirty-seven percent of North American birds are at risk of extinction in the immediate future according to the 2016 State of North American Birds.

To reverse this loss, Dr. Ehrlich thinks that we should concentrate on populations, not species. By the time the species is threatened with extinction, only an expensive and time consuming sustained effort can reverse the decline and for many species heroic efforts are too late. Instead local populations should be identified and their habitats preserved to maintain a critical number of populations. This is where we can all help. Citizen Scientists are essential to identifying and monitoring local populations. The need is too great and the number of conservation biologists are too few to leave this job to professionals alone. EBird is an accessible way to contribute to the conservation effort, as is participating in the Christmas Bird Count, Bioblitzes, and other biosurveys. Once the relevant habitats are identified, conservation efforts can preserve and protect them. We are in a crisis but it is not hopeless. If each and every one of us does her or his part, we can still save many of the remarkable species with whom we share this planet. If enough species are saved, ecosystems remain intact.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS