This Fourth of July holiday weekend thousands of New Jerseyans will get out their red, white and blue and celebrate our nation’s independence by exercising our right to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors.

But what many of us might not realize is that while we flock to our local parks, historic sites, and recreation areas to enjoy family picnics, nature hikes, bike rides, canoeing, and kayaking we are actually taking advantage of resources that would not have been preserved without the Garden State Preservation Trust.

The Garden State Preservation Trust, the state’s bank account for open space, historic site, and farmland preservation, has helped protect nearly 300,000 acres throughout New Jersey since its inception in 1998 — including more than 500 acres of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association’s own watershed reserve in Hopewell Township. The trust’s funding, matching contributions, and other administrative amenities have enabled hundreds of towns in all 21 counties, nonprofit organizations, and other groups to create new parks, preserve farmland, and protect sources of clean drinking water and our treasured wild spaces.

Today with its funds completely drained, the Garden State Preservation Trust is at a critical crossroads. On Thursday, June 25, the state legislature passed Voter Choice for Open Space, giving voters the opportunity to replenish the Garden State Preservation Trust in November.

The bill calls for a $400 million investment over two years — or $10 annually per household for the life of the bond — delivering much-needed funds to ensure we all have wildlife habitats, clean water, historic sites, local food sources, and recreation areas to enjoy, including natural gems like the Sourland Mountains, Millstone River and Stony Brook corridors, Franklin Township’s Six Mile Run, and the Princeton Ridge.

The Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, as one of the 126 members of the NJ Keep It Green coalition, which represents everyone from sportsmen and farmers, to park advocates, environmentalists and conservationists, urges Governor Jon Corzine to sign the Voter Choice for Open Space bill and continue the state’s tradition of listening to the voters’ decision on open space funding.

Since 1961 New Jersey voters have demonstrated strong and consistent support on 12 statewide open space ballot questions, approving all 12. And in recent polling by the Nature Conservancy of 600 likely voters, 80 percent favored voter choice.

We are all worried about our financial health, but the benefits of protecting open space in New Jersey go well beyond the initial costs.

According to analysis by the national Trust for Public Land, with a $400 million investment in open space and farmland, every $1 invested would return $10 in economic value through natural goods and ecosystem services over the next 20 years — producing benefits such as clean water, flood control, and local agricultural products, while creating jobs and providing additional economic benefits from historic preservation and park development projects.

We continue to lose open space in New Jersey at a rate of roughly 15,000 acres per year. As the most densely populated state in the nation we can ill afford to not preserve and protect our natural and historic treasures for current and future generations to enjoy.

If you plan on exploring the great outdoors this Fourth of July weekend, contact Governor Corzine at 609-292-6000 and tell him to support Voter Choice for Open Space and let you decide to replenish the Garden State Preservation Trust.

Coffey is policy director for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. Now celebrating its 60th annversary, the association protects clean water and the environment across central New Jersey. Visit www.thewatershed.org.

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