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By Jan Barry

WANAQUE - A key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the Highlands preservation area has been acquired by the state Green Acres program. The 125-acre Gallo tract was long sought by conservationists because it provides a wooded connector between the Wanaque Reservoir and Norvin Green State Forest. Adjacent to a small residential community along Townsend Road, the new state land rises up a steep ridge on the Wanaque-Bloomingdale border.

"This preservation area acquisition complements DEP's regulatory work and the Highlands Council's planning efforts," state Environmental Commissioner Bradley Campbell said Wednesday. "The project demonstrates the importance of forming partnerships with private landowners and county, municipal and nonprofit groups to conserve Highlands water resources."

Campbell also noted that the buyout demonstrates the commitment of his department to saving environmentally sensitive land in the Highlands preservation area stretching from western Bergen County through parts of the counties of Passaic, Morris, Sussex, Somerset, Warren and Hunterdon.

The DEP purchased the property from the owner of a Bloomingdale stone quarry, concluding negotiations started by Wanaque officials. The DEP Green Acres Program provided $1,061,000 for the buyout, while Passaic County contributed $200,000. The latter funds were originally a Passaic County Open Space grant to Wanaque to help buy this site.

The land, which is within remote wooded ridges to the west of the reservoir, will become part of the state forest and open to the public.

"This is an outstanding acquisition," Wanaque Mayor Warren Hagstrom said. "I want to thank the DEP Green Acres Program and Passaic County. This fits in perfectly with Norvin Green State Forest and the Wanaque Reservoir."

Passaic County Freeholder Lois Cuccinello, who sits on the new Highlands Council that is drafting a master plan for the region, said county officials were "delighted with this latest preservation effort."

So were environmentalists.

"It's been a number of years in the making and we're glad to see it happening," said Jon Berry, president of Skylands CLEAN, an environmental activist group based in Ringwood and Wanaque.

"It's a key piece," said Jeff Tittel, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, whose home is nearby in Ringwood. "Had it been lost, it would have impacted a big area around it. At one time, they were talking about 40 houses" proposed for the site.

State officials noted that the property is within 1,000 feet of the Wanaque Reservoir and protects portions of the watersheds of three tributaries of the reservoir. The parcel also provides habitat to a variety of threatened and endangered species, including red shouldered hawks, timber rattlesnakes and wood turtles.

Reprinted from the Bergen Record (Hackensack), Feb. 10, 2005