The jewel of Essex County is the two-thousand-acre South Mountain Reservation, which serves as an offset to the crowded urban and suburban towns in this region. Unfortunately, it seems that our own elected officials are leading an assault on that precious open space. Each year acres of wooded land are being replaced with concrete and pavement. This is a misuse of the Open Space Trust Fund as our tax dollars; already we have lost 40 acres of woods to the Turtle Back Zoo and its infrastructure.

It is unconscionable that there has been NO Environmental Impact Assessment despite the obvious degradation of open space. As we brace ourselves for extreme weather events resulting from climate change, we need to consider carefully every acre of woods that may be replaced by concrete. There seems no attempt to use renewable energy sources, and we can reasonably anticipate negative impact to watershed and drainage, burdening our local townships and our private homeowners insurance. The traffic around Turtle Back Zoo is unbearable, and the never-ending need for parking lots is just unacceptable. A third parking deck was opened last year at a cost of $17 million.

In 2014, the zoo opened its state-of-the-art educational center, at a cost of $4 million. Now we are told that it’s inadequate, because classrooms can only hold 20-30 children at a time.  Essex County is planning to open a 500-seat amphitheater at a cost of $8 million. Parading animals in front of 500 children will certainly traumatize the animals. The Bronx Zoo and Central Park Zoo, two revered and well-funded institutions, don’t have huge theaters like this. Counter to the plan to teach to groups of children in the hundreds, there is ample data to prove that children learn more effectively in smaller groups.

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The county claims that a 500-seat theater provides an interactive experience, which is patently untrue. Interactive education can be arranged by helping the children to walk the trails of our wonderful natural resource, the South Mountain Reservation. Already we see our native animals being squeezed out of their habitat, evidenced by the necessity for an annual deer “culling.” Foxes have been pushed into our backyards, and now coyotes are also seen regularly on our suburban streets. The Turtle Back Zoo would have the greatest conservation and educational benefit if it were to spotlight native species; the fantastic corps of dedicated docents can teach children from urban and suburban areas about deer, rabbits, raccoons, bears, and what they can do to protect these species. Experts can explain how bats can be used to reduce mosquitos, and what can be done to bring back the bee population. 

At least $75 million has already been spent since 2003. School districts are cutting basic programs, and some are unable to provide lead-free water. Roads and bridges are crumbling. What we don’t need are more resources devoted to the acquisition and care of exotic animals. Improving the current educational facility and curriculum, and the existing 120-seat amphitheater would be a more effective solution, rather than spending money on a huge entertainment center.

The zoo right now is big enough! I implore my elected officials to stop the relentless expansion. Please gather detailed and verifiable environmental impact data, conduct an economic analysis, and you will see that the numbers simply do not support this project. Make attempts to use renewable energy sources, and build environmentally responsible structures. Stop using Open Space Trust Fund monies to destroy open space! Please show respect for the environment, for your constituents, and for the animals.