Below are the NJ Audubon comments submitted to the Passaic County Parks Director and County Freeholders regarding the Rifle Camp Park Improvement Project. Please let us know if you have any questions.
Eric Stiles, President & CEO
New Jersey Audubon Society
Dear Director Sparta,
On behalf of New Jersey Audubon, the following comments address Passaic County’s Rifle Camp Park Improvement Project, which involves the construction of a disk golf course, dog park, 5k race loop, and other changes. As a non-profit, statewide membership organization with a mission to protect New Jersey’s animals and precious habitats, one of our many priorities is preserving Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), locations identified as critical for the conservation of bird populations. Given Rifle Camp Park is part of an IBA and contains extremely valuable and sensitive habitat, we recommend alternative sites to be considered for this project, should they exist. Otherwise, there is a need for careful consideration and reduction of all possible impacts.
Rifle Camp Park and the neighboring Garret Mountain Reservation make up the Garret Mountain IBA. Throughout the years, this area has been a destination for a number of New Jersey Audubon-led field trips and birding workshops. The entire site, comprised of deciduous forests and valuable water sources, supports rich populations of wildlife, and is especially important to our state’s birds. This area serves as an important stopover and flyover for a variety of migrating species including warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows, flycatchers, swallows and wrens. Located within the Atlantic Flyway, which is a major avian migration route travelling along the Atlantic Coast and up to the Appalachian Mountains, New Jersey hosts many visiting populations of birds seeking resources and habitat when breaking from their long journeys. This means that the conditions of our state’s IBAs are highly important.
The Garret Mountain IBA has been known to accommodate breeding birds such as barred owls, Kentucky warblers, prothonotary warblers, and yellow-breasted chats. This is significant as barred owls are listed as threatened in New Jersey, and Kentucky warblers and yellow-breasted chats are both species of special concern, or species that are showing evidence of decline or are impacted by some characteristic or challenge, such as habitat loss, making them at risk of reaching threatened status in the future.
This IBA not only stands out because of its importance to birds, but because of its vulnerability. The most serious issue it faces is damage to vital habitats caused by overpopulated white-tailed deer, and takeover of beneficial native habitat by invasive plants and pests. Additionally, with much ongoing development in the region, the area and its habitats are subjected to greater levels of nonpoint source pollution and face greater chances of human disturbance. Human activities and expansion within parks play a role in degradation because of increased disturbance and build-up of litter. Considering the sensitive state of the habitats within Rifle Camp Park, all potential impacts from this and any project need to be analyzed completely and in full context with simultaneous threats such as the mentioned over-browse by deer and surrounding development pressures.
The proposed disk golf course, though a greener alternative to many other athletic courses, carries potential risk to wildlife given an inevitable increase in foot traffic through forested areas. Generally, the course and other proposed amenities will attract a larger number of visitors, which could alter the way species use the surrounding environment by pushing some to relocate to more secluded spots in the forest. In consequence, monitoring efforts on residing habitats as well as human behavior would be an important undertaking to ensure that critical habitats are not being trampled and there aren’t serious disruptions.
Despite how unproblematic the sport may seem, there is a need to pay attention to any potential impacts of the course’s long-term existence. Several studies, including a University of Tennessee study published in 2011, suggest that, over time, traffic over soil from disk golf activity contributes significantly to soil compaction, which negatively impacts future vegetation growth and leads to increased soil erosion. Additionally, as damage to nearby trees and plants has been reported at disk golf courses in the past, planners should take design initiatives in order to reduce the chance of repetitive hits from discs.
On the topic of planned vegetation and small tree removal, we stress the need for all actions to follow the expert advice of the County’s NJDEP-certified forester and for the forester to consistently be made aware of all components of the plan. Excessive removal of vegetation can be detrimental to species, especially endangered or threatened species, if the vegetation being cut down includes valuable habitat. If removal of any significant plant species or habitat occurs, we inquire whether a plan is in place to replant or replace any of that vegetation.
Finally, we would like to confirm whether the proposed dog park is to be built on a section of wetland where amphibious species breed. Wetlands, which are havens for biodiversity and support a range of both plant and animal life, are important to preserve and therefore should be avoided as sites for construction. Like with all other activities of the Rifle Camp Park Improvement Project, we emphasize the need for complete confirmation from the forester or other appropriate environmental experts to ensure minimal ecological impact prior to installation.
If selection of an alternative, less sensitive site is not at all possible, it is important for managers of the park to make the preservation of existing natural resources a major planning focus, ensure compliance with the forester and any other relevant professionals, and monitor any effects the course and other amenities may have on wildlife and ecosystem health. New Jersey Audubon is a strong supporter of outdoor recreation and connecting people to nature; however, IBAs are critical habitat where development and impacts should be avoided and minimized.
We thank you for your consideration of our comments.
Vice President of Government Relations
New Jersey Audubon