REPORT: Maplewood Environmental Leaders Express Concerns About Zoo Improvements

by The Village Green
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Maplewood environmental leaders expressed their opposition to the continued expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo at a public meeting for a grant application to New Jersey Green Acres at the Essex County Board of Commissioners July 7 meeting, as reported by the News-Record.

Zoo officials said that the new Amazing Asia exhibit under discussion would include a new training area and a new climate-controlled indoor pavilion — but would not expand the footprint of the zoo.

“I’m glad to hear from the director that the new exhibit is within the existing footprint of the zoo,” Maplewood resident and environmental scientist Virginia Falconer told the board of commissioners. “However, there is no firm boundary to the zoo. Boundary fencing continually creeps out into the adjoining South Mountain Reservation, destroying old-growth forest. It’s an inexorable march extending out, trees dying and then claiming that land as part of the zoo.”

According to the News-Record, Falconer “encouraged the commissioners to set hard boundaries for the zoo, so there is a perimeter beyond which no future projects could expand.”

“The zoo and the complex are certainly big enough, and they have enough resources devoted to them,” Falconer said. “The reservation is a really vital natural resource in our densely developed and populated urban county, and I hope the commissioners realize that. I’d like you to consider a more balanced approach to our recreation needs in Essex County.”

In addition Maplewood Township Committeewoman Nancy Adams submitted an email to be read during public comments.

“With everything that has just come out recently about the urgency of climate change, now is the time to invest in natural resources, not make more attractions,” Adams wrote. “As an elected official, I beg you to listen to your constituents and the scientists, and leave what little natural space there is left in New Jersey alone.”

Other commenters noted that the zoo still does not have an approved Master Plan and asked commissioners to wait for the approval of such a plan before moving forward on any additional improvements.

Local residents have been pushing back on projects on the much improved and expanded zoo in recent years.

In May 2020, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. announced that the county was abandoning a controversial project to build a new outdoor amphitheater that would have encroached on land in the South Mountain Reservation. DiVincenzo stated, “During the last five months, we have been focused on planning for and responding to the pandemic. Essex County has been particularly hard hit, having the most COVID-related deaths and the third largest amount of positive cases in the state. Planning for the Turtle Back Zoo amphitheater has not been a priority and the project has been put on hold.”

Read the full report on the Amazing Asia grant application from the News-Record of Maplewood & South Orange here:

County seeks Green Acres funding for zoo project, park renovation

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