Speakers inspired, crowds cheered and chanted, and passing cars honked their horns in support as area students led a rally of over 300 participants on Sunday March 1 at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. The goal? To protest the County’s latest expansion plans for the zoo. Organizers are demanding that Essex County stop construction of a planned $8.5 million taxpayer-funded amphitheater in the reservation, construction of which would destroy 1.5 acres of open space in the historic reservation, in addition to the over 25 acres that have already been consumed by Zoo expansion.
Speakers ranged from middle and high school students to long time environmental and social justice advocates and activists. They took to the podium, addressing issues such as conservation of existing open space, humane treatment of animals, environmental impacts of further expansion, including the larger issue of climate change, and excessive spending of taxpayer money on “vanity” projects that benefit relatively few residents.
Columbia High School senior Jordan Muhammad told the crowd “I’m here because we’re in a crisis. Our county, our country, our world ,is in a climate crisis, and our government, this government, is not acting like it!” Svan Mura, a student at Roosevelt School in West Orange, said, “We need to start right here if we want to reverse climate change and save ourselves. We need to direct efforts to build our infrastructure and lower our ecological footprints as fast as possible.” Joyce Rudin, Chair of the Coalition to Save the South Mountain Reservation, asked “This is the year that an entire continent burned due to climate change, and Essex County decided to decimate our reservation? And has the gall to claim that it is in the name of conservation?”
Many of the speakers directed their comments to the Essex County Executive and the Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Sabre Bee, a Newark resident and leader of the Newark Water Coalition, said “It is amazing to have 12,000 voices on a petition” but that it was outrageous that “those voices are not being heard!” Councilwoman Nancy Adams of Maplewood urged people to gather signatures to run for one of nine Freeholder positions up for grabs in November. Potential candidates must submit 100 signatures by March 30 to get on the primary ballot, Adams told protesters. Jordan Muhammad said “If the Essex County Executive really cared about conservation he would invest in the reservation.”
The County has faced, and ignored, significant public opposition since the plan was first announced in summer 2019. The Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation, an organization that formed just over a month ago in early February, has quickly expanded to include 20 community, environmental, and animal rights groups, representing thousands of people from throughout the region. Over 12,200 people have signed an online change.org petition to request that the County put the brakes on future plans to expand the Zoo until a Master Plan can be adopted. Many surrounding communities have passed ordinances with the same demand. The County has not conducted environmental assessments for zoo expansion projects in the past, which is in violation of the law, and continues to pour funds into for-profit attractions. In contrast, the reservation has been severely degraded and neglected, with no annual operating budget. Trail maintenance, invasive species control and other conservation activities are performed by the volunteer South Mountain Conservancy, utilizing a $2000 annual allocation from the County.
The Freeholders voted on February 26th to approve a request for $4 million in state funds as a contribution to the project, after vociferous public comment. Construction bids for the amphitheater, dubbed the Conservation Pavilion by the County, are due on March 13, 2020.
Coalition members are strategizing their next steps which include continuing to rally municipal opposition, investigating possible deed restrictions on the reservation, and investigating legal options for stopping the proposed construction.
More information at https://coalitionsmr.org/