Long-term budget and staff cuts over several administrations have severely impacted the ability of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to carry out critical work to protect the state’s environment and residents. This has serious implications for wildlife, public health and the economy. DEP is charged with managing and protecting the state’s environment and natural resources. This requires an adequate budget, which is a well-planned investment for the state’s future through safeguarding public goods such as clean air and clean drinking water supplies. Rebuilding the DEP and supporting increased staffing levels should be a pressing priority for Gov.-elect Phil Murphy.

DEP funding comes from several sources, including but not limited to: the general fund, permitting, fines, fees, leases and the federal government. The department’s budget has not grown sufficiently to meet its needs; responsibilities have increased by way of additional land and management responsibilities as staff sizes have been reduced through attrition and hiring freezes. The talented and dedicated staff at the department are stretched to meet increased responsibilities with decreased resources. These cuts impact not only protection of natural resources but also result in increased waits for permits, reduced transparency and impact enforcement actions. Park projects are back-logged, recreation opportunities reduced and fisheries shut down for lack of available science. Consider the following examples:

State parks — The DEP is the state’s largest manager of preserved lands, forests and parks. This is hundreds of thousands of acres and growing. State parks have been forced to reduce services such as educational and interpretive programs, park police and vital natural resource management due to the continued decline of staff and budget support.

Fisheries — The DEP is charged with managing, preserving and protecting more than 500 species of wildlife and fish. It’s a large task, and with insufficient resources, there are consequences. In 2012, the river herring fishery was shut down in part because the state lacked the personnel or funding to collect the data to prove whether the fishery was sustainable. Proper data would enable either a well-informed closure to promote population recovery or prohibit the needless closing of a fishery.

Permitting — Delays in processing permits have resulted in delays in cleaning up contaminated sites. Remedial Action Permits allow the DEP to evaluate the proposed and ongoing cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated brownfield sites per the Site Remediation Reform Act. These permits help to evaluate and address issues such as remaining soil and/or water contamination, and thus play an important role in protecting public health. Lack of resources for review increased the average wait time for these permits to approximately 200 days.

Enforcement — Reduced staff (approximately 40 fewer inspectors from 2005 levels) carrying out enforcement actions has resulted in fewer citations and issuance of penalties and fines by nearly 50 percent. Clearly, this reduces not only a source of revenue, but also reduces deterrents for environmental violations. As one example, data from the Division of Parks and Forestry reveal that penalties collected in 2014 were half of those collected in 2009 (with various years showing fluctuating amounts, but a generally consistent downward trend).

A popular argument remains that during fiscally challenging times we simply cannot afford to invest in the environment and wildlife. But such an investment is far from frivolous, considering fish and wildlife populations in turn bring in over $100 million in state tax revenue and billions of dollars into the state economy through fishing, hunting and wildlife watching.

The dire funding and staffing trends at DEP must be reversed to properly protect New Jersey residents and to preserve the state’s valuable natural resources. Investment must be made in revitalizing our parks, and modernization encouraged to make DEP more transparent and predictable for those interacting with the agency. If we continue to chronically under-invest in our natural capital, the state will experience not only a decline in the many benefits these areas provide residents, such as clean air and water and safe places to play, but also experience a significant loss of revenue in the coming years and over the long term.

Kelly Mooij, of Trenton, is vice president for government relations for New Jersey Audubon.

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