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Black River, photo by Dwight Hiscano

HIGHLANDS HIGHLIGHTS: Experience the Beauty of the Highlands Region

NJ HILLS MEDIA // May 22, 2023

I remember what it was like to get on a bike and go for a ride on the winding hills of Succasunna in the eighties.  Not all rides were smooth.  Sometimes I fell off the bike and there was a moment when things were definitely not going to be “fine” but I was still thinking, “Things will be fine.”

I haven’t ridden a bike in years and currently don’t even own one.  While I’m not going to talk about how to ride a bike or the places to ride your bike, I can provide the best ways in which to protect our most precious natural resource  – water — and yes, like my eighties bike rides, there is some risk involved but also optimism, because durable legislation such as the 2004 Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act and advocacy groups like the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a Boonton based nonprofit for which I work, are standing up for natural and cultural resource protection.  

Where are the New Jersey Highlands?  No, it’s not on the northern tip of the New Jersey Shore in Monmouth County, where a town named Highlands is located. The New Jersey Highlands stretch about 60 miles from Phillipsburg in the southwest of the region to Oakland in the northeast – think of everything west of I-287 and north of I-78. Prior to 1 billion years ago, much of the NJ Highlands region was under water. Later, during the Paleozoic Era, the current physiographic provinces of today began to form, dividing the state into regions with different landforms and geology.  The Highlands is sandwiched between the Ridge and Valley (Northwest) and the Piedmont (Southeast) provinces. What other provinces are there? The Piedmont, and Coastal Plain. The Highlands, the area with the oldest rocks, is  made up of  granite, quartzite and schist and a big fan favorite –  limestone — which in turn created this scenic, rugged terrain with mountainous uplands, rocky outcrops, extensive forests, numerous lakes and multiple waterfalls.  This geological process provided some of the most productive aquifers found anywhere and our important drinking water sources.  In addition, very diverse plants and animals live here, having been provided unique natural habitats in which to live and grow.

Limestone is a carbonate rock. It holds sequestered carbon, formed over millions of years by layers of skeletal sea creatures. Limestone is soluble. When it  dissolves it releases stored carbon and may form karst features—sinkholes, ravines, underground, or disappearing streams.  Karst regions have highly productive aquifers because water travels quickly through voids and channels. Because water travels quickly through the rock there is very little contact with soils that would filter out contaminants, making groundwater vulnerable to contamination from spills or malfunctioning septic systems. Streams located in karst regions stay cool, because water moves quicky, making ideal conditions for trout. Development on karst without careful geotechnical investigations can result in catastrophic sinkholes or contaminated water supplies. Building on karst can be like a game of Jenga, Labyrinth and Dominos all at the same time!

Much of the western Highlands: the Musconetcong River, Pohatcong Creek, Lopatcong Creek and other Delaware River tributaries and their watersheds are underlain by limestone with karst features.

There are so many complex factors when safeguarding our drinking water.  The challenge is kind of like having your status on Facebook listed as “It’s complicated”. Here’s what’s at stake. The New Jersey Highlands span just 17% of the State’s land area, yet provide over 70% of its residents with plentiful, clean, affordable drinking water.  We tend to take that fact – clean water — for granted, yet let’s not stand by and leave protecting it to someone one else to do or, worse yet, wait till the tap runs out or runs foul. Just look to what is happening to communities out west that depend on the Colorado River!  Life as we know it here would change dramatically if clean, plentiful water is no longer available. It took a billion years to form this amazing region, the Highlands.  The State’s geological features continue to determine how we do business, where we do business and when we do business, as they have for centuries. Our natural and cultural resources are entwined into the fabric of our daily lives, they help us earn a living and provide recreational opportunities that support our health and wellbeing.

All of us must play a part in protecting these resources for future generations, and in preserving the beauty and environmental health of the New Jersey Highlands. Comprehensive regional planning, establishing sound policy with input from the public, allows us to navigate to a promising future. Maybe it’s my glass-half-full mindset, the optimism provided by getting back on the bike, and of connecting with others to establish best practices for the protection of New Jersey’s valuable public trust resources in the Highlands region that makes me feel good about the future.  Whether you are new to the area, or need reminding why regional planning that depends on local participation works. Spring is a great time to explore the natural world around us.  Here in the beautiful Highlands, maybe even hop on your bike and explore the region and see it for yourself.


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