New Jersey is a great place for wildlife, but also is the most urbanized state. Public open space efforts help a lot, but homeowners and businesses can do much to offset the loss of habitat to development by including native plants serving wildlife on their properties.
Natural habitats support many kinds of birds and butterflies. Seeing them is a joy and those who create such an oasis in their yard know they’re helping wild species survive. They also benefit from lower yard maintenance costs, reduced or eliminated pesticides and fertilizers, less need for water-wasting irrigation, and less use of polluting yard machines.
Everyone benefits because wildlife-friendly habitats reduce rainfall runoff and flooding, have a smaller carbon footprint, and support species important to South Jersey’s lucrative nature-tourism industry.
Yet while the state Department of Environmental Protection encourages such backyard habitat, the state has yet to protect residents and homeowners from municipalities that don’t recognize it or understand it. Even as the costs of misusing the environment mount, many still regard ornamental shrubs and a manicured non-native lawn as their community’s standard for a well-kept property.
Avalon provides the current example. It has taken resident Elaine Scattergood to court for letting a wildlife friendly native vine — Virginia creeper — grow more than 9 inches long. The borough apparently doesn’t see the value in the wildlife habitat that Scattergood has created, even though the Virginia creeper it wants to eliminate is on its own list of recommended plants for its dunes.
Four years ago, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Democrat representing Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, came up with a good solution, working with Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick of Westfield. They proposed a program to certify wildlife habitat and immunize it from municipal ordinances that might deem it a nuisance or otherwise unlawful.
The program has some attractive features.
Entities designated by the state Department of Environmental Protection to certify properties could charge a small fee, and municipal registration of that certificate could prompt another small fee. These would cover necessary costs and help ensure participants are serious about wildlife habitat. Besides the protections, property owners would get a sign designating the habitat, which would help educate the public.
Another good aspect of the bill is that those authorized to certify habitat could include nonprofits such as NJ Audubon, long an advocate of backyard habitat, as well as for-profit lawn and landscape firms. Some of the latter might develop a new side to their businesses helping homeowners create and maintain their own little hummingbird and butterfly paradises.
The bipartisan wildlife landscaping certification bill twice passed the state Assembly unanimously — 76-0 in both 2015 and 2017. Unfortunately, both times it then went nowhere after being sent to the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
Each year that the senators delay acting on this popular measure, extinction pressures on species increase, rainwater runoff becomes more of a problem, the recharging of aquifers becomes more essential, and people are discouraged from making changes urged by the government’s own environmental scientists.
Habitat that’s more supportive of wildlife has turned out to be more supportive of human life and well-being too. The Legislature needs to pass this bill and remove these impediments to that healthier, more natural future.