Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

The Columbian: An Environment Fit for Lockdown

With all schools in New Jersey in distance learning mode, the dedicated staff of Columbia High School’s award-winning student newspaper, The Columbianproudly present their third on-line edition at thecolumbianchs.com. The following feature story “An Environment Fit for Lockdown” by Jonah Traub, incoming Incoming Co-Editor in Chief, The Columbian, Class of 2021, was originally published by The Columbian on June 17, 2020. With permission from CHS administration and staff at the newspaper, Village Green will be posting more content from the current issue of The Columbian in the coming weeks.

Emission levels are falling, demand for energy is dropping, air pollution levels are declining and wildlife is seemingly reemerging. Is COVID-19 the catalyst for sustainability that the community has been looking for, or is it simply making the environment worse?

A CHANGING WORLD

COVID-19 has proven itself to be devastating as it has caused over 115,000 deaths across the country, and over 12,000 deaths in New Jersey alone, according to NPR. It has shut down businesses, schools, places of worship, public activities and parks around the Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) community, disrupting many lives and causing people to be separated in a time when they might need community the most. While the virus is problematic for the lives of Columbia High School (CHS) students and the rest of the MAPSO community for many reasons, by forcing people to limit physical interactions with each other and the world around them, the virus has indirectly affected, both positively and negatively, the state of the natural world.

NATURE’S INCREASING POPULARITY

One area that has been able to quickly reopen and provide an outlet to nature is the South Mountain Reservation. Locally known as the Reservation, it is a 2,112 acre nature reserve in Essex County that overlaps both Maplewood and South Orange. According to Leo Gold, ‘23, going to the Reservation has been a frequent activity for him during quarantine and has provided him and others an escape from the monotony. Gold said, “The Reservation has received an extremely large amount of foot traffic ever since it reopened,” referring to the Reservation’s newly reopened status on May 2, after Essex County lifted restrictions that had closed it since March 16. Many have started to go to the Reservation for a moment among nature, with this increased turnout being confirmed by Dennis Percher, the chair of the board of trustees of the South Mountain Conservancy since 2007, and a member of the community. Percher elaborated that “the use of the reservation has increased dramatically. … I would say possibly five fold [of what it was before the COVID-19 period]… minimally three times as many people.” Not only has its attendance increased, but behavior in the Reservation has changed as well. “[People] are leaving a lot more litter throughout the Reservation and on the trails,” said Percher. According to him, the number of people coming to the Reservation and the amount of littering throughout the reserve increased together. This created a larger mess that needs to be cleaned up in order for the natural beauty of the park and the safety of the wildlife to be restored and ensured for the future.

“The use of the reservation has increased dramatically. … I would say possibly five fold [of what it was before the COVID-19 period]… minimally three times as many people.”

While there has been an increase in litter, Percher explained that there has also been an increase in erosion to the trails due to heavier usage, which is wearing them down and hurting the ability of the Conservancy. Both of these issues are managed by small volunteer groups from the county or from the Conservancy, which makes maintenance a slow going process. Percher pointed out, “If you like the trails, realize that it’s maintained by the Conservancy,… [and] we’re trying to boost our membership because we find we need this… increased effort [to help with trail preservation].”

However, while the increase in attendance at the Reservation has caused some issues, the benefits of it are starting to be revealed. The higher attendance has shown people in and around the community that, like Percher says, they “have a regional park at [their] doorstep [that] is an enormous attraction… [which] is quite exceptional.” This rekindling of passion for the Reservation that people now feel as a consequence of the pandemic can bring new possibilities to the Conservancy and the reserve, all of which would help preserve the Reservation and maintain its natural beauty. Percher believes it could raise the number of volunteers and funding for trail maintenance, as well as popularize the benefits of the Conservancy and the Reservation, which will help to sustain both.

THE ANIMAL KINGDOM

Some believe COVID-19 has increased the amount of wildlife around Mapso and other areas around the United States. The New York Times said that without the normal hustle and bustle in the city that never sleeps, “New York City seems to be filled with bird song.” According to Scott Egelberg, the current Office of Emergency Management Coordinator for South Orange, the South Orange Department of Animal Control has “had an increase in complaints, mainly [regarding] raccoons,” pointing to the fact that there may be an increase in the animal population happening in MAPSO. However, Egelberg maintained that this is not the case, saying that there has not necessarily been an increase in the numbers of the animal population per se, but an increase in their interaction with humans. Egelberg confirmed that due to changes in human behavior including the closing of local restaurants, which eliminates the food source that comes from their trash, animals such as rats and raccoons have wandered further and been spotted more frequently. Due to “a lot of factors [coming] into play, it created the perfect storm” that both increased the possibility of these interactions going up, as well as increasing the intensity and time with which people in the community can and have been looking for these creatures. These factors worked in tandem with each other to create the perception that more animals were appearing.

Egelberg made note of the fact that this increase in exposure to animals around the community can also be attributed to a change in the behavior of the animals themselves, stating that “the world that [the animals] knew two months ago is completely different now.” This would have the potential to entirely shift how and where humans and animals interact, at least during the time when restrictions are still maintained, leading to more run-ins with nature than usual for some people in the community.

THE PUSH FOR SUSTAINABILITY

COVID-19 has also affected the environment of MAPSO by altering the amount of emissions and the way residents use energy. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency announced in their 2020 report that “global energy demand declined by 3.8% in the first quarter of 2020,” with the demand for non-renewable energy like coal and oil, “falling by almost 8%… [and] nearly 5% in the first quarter,” respectively. The Agency also announced that “renewables were the only source that posted a growth in demand,” while other experts, like Carbon Brief, have announced that “emissions for the whole of this year are likely to be between 4% and 7% [lower],” which, if these statistics persisted, can be positive for the environment as less greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere. This is most likely the case for MAPSO as well, as Walter Clarke, a Village Trustee of South Orange and a member of multiple environmental protection and sustainability committees, believes that the emission levels of the community “[have] to be down because… the commuter parking lots in town are nearly empty” due to a majority of employers switching to a work-from-home format, cutting at least “several hundred vehicle trips a day” in MAPSO alone. Clarke also attested to the fact that he has seen more people running and biking who may not have done so in a long time, like Garrett Diegnan, ‘21, who has “definitely been driving a lot less than before, … [and] been trying to get outside and try different outdoor activities [like running],” during this pandemic period. This can lower emissions and conserve energy even more as people defer to activities right outside their doorstep instead of spending time in the car or using up energy in the house.

“Emissions for the whole of this year are likely to be between 4% and 7% [lower],”

And COVID-19’s impact may not only be felt in MAPSO’s emission levels and energy usage. Clarke believes that the sustained economic downturn that experts and economists predict, while being financially destructive, “may allow people to… look at a Green New Deal.” Clarke was referring to a collection of legislation that will advance reforms to address problems with climate change and sustainability, because instability in the economic system often prompts a desire for change. This could have the potential to drastically improve the community’s, as well as the nation’s, relationship with its environment, and its efforts towards preserving it.

GOING FORWARD

With all of the changes that COVID-19 has started to bring along, whether or not these positive changes can be sustained becomes the question. To help the community with this challenging task, Percher and Clarke have provided MAPSO with a few tips and tricks for maintaining environmentally sustaining habits:

  1. Make informed consumer choices, with Clarke saying that people in the community should “Choose carefully what [they] purchase and consider its full life.”
  2. Stay on the trails at the Reservation.
  3. Be energy conscious and try to use as little energy as possible, or use more environmentally friendly energy sources.
  4. Dispose of trash properly and in an environmentally conscious way.
  5. Go outside and get in touch with the world so you can, as Clarke said, “get that connection back to the earth and get a sense of your place on the planet.”

Clarke believes some of the impacts of COVID-19 itself, such as the economic downturn, could lead to sustained improvement to the environment. “Because of the upheaval [it has caused]… people will be less invested in the old ways of doing business, and will be forced to creatively come up with new alternatives,” said Clarke. “And frankly, if it’s revolution rather than evolution, you may have a better chance of a truly sustainable system being instituted.”

Designer: M. McBride

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