Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

Delaware Watershed landmark project protects
drinking water and historic canal in New Jersey

Mount Rascal Bill Rawlyk photo

                                Download a pdf of map of the project       divider

Acquisition expands preserve, drinking water and historic canal in New Jersey

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WARREN COUNTY, NJ — Nov 20, 2015 — Two newly-conserved tracts of land in northeastern New Jersey’s Mount Rascal Preserve protect drinking water for the New Jersey Highlands and preserve part of a valuable historic landmark for the public.

The land, totaling 112-acres and located just outside Hackettstown, New Jersey, protects the Preserve’s namesake wooded mountain summit, “Mount Rascal,” and preserves a portion of the historic Morris Canal. The two parcels, which brings the preserve to 353 acres, include part of the watershed of the Bowers Brook a headwater tributary of the Musconetcong River.  

Designated by the state as “exceptionally significant” for ecology and drinking water, the Bowers Brook is a forested headwater stream   targeted for protection by the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which seeks to ensure abundant, clean water for the watershed’s 15 million residents.

“Forests play a critical role in filtering drinking water, in turn helping to build healthier communities,” said Peter Howell, Executive Vice President at the Open Space Institute (OSI), which provided funding to help the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) conserve the land. “The Mount Rascal project shows the value of innovative partnerships and collaborations in protecting water quality for the region’s 15 million residents.”

In addition to OSI, the state Green Acres Program, Warren County, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and William Penn Foundation partnered to complete the $1,175,000 land purchase.

The preserve, located a short distance from Routes 46 and 614, is open to the public for hiking and other passive recreation. It is operated by the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust.  

 “This acquisition adds the keystone parcel, including the summit of Mt. Rascal, to the New Jersey Natural Land Trust’s Mt. Rascal Preserve,” said Richard Boornazian, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. 

“Preserving unbroken forests such as this is critical for protecting water quality and wildlife habitat in the environmentally-sensitive Highlands region of New Jersey,” Boornazian added. “We invite visitors to enjoy a relaxing and educational walk along the historic Morris Canal or challenge themselves on a steep hike to the peak of Mount Rascal.”

The state purchased 66.5 wooded, steeply sloped acres at the top of Mount Rascal on November 17, 2015, four days after Warren County purchased 45.8 adjoining acres that include the canal section and tributary stream, known as the Bowers Brook. The county was assisted by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which provided funding from the William Penn Foundation and OSI toward the purchase.

Protecting Forests and Clean Water

New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s Mount Rascal Project was supported through OSI’s Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund, which is made possible with funding from the William Penn Foundation. The project is the third land transaction to be completed of 17 that have been approved by the Fund, and that collectively will conserve about 14,000 acres of important watershed lands across the 13,000-square-mile Delaware Watershed, which lies within parts of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The New Jersey Highlands is one of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative’s eight priority regions.

“We’re very pleased to partner in this expansion of the Mount Rascal Preserve,” said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “It’s a beautiful property, and it’s great that the public will be able to enjoy both the mountain summit and the Morris Canal route.”

“This is a wonderful open space project because it not only preserves important forest and headwaters, but it also provides a beautiful place for residents to recreate. In addition, it protects a large segment of the Morris Canal where visitors can learn more about our treasured local history,” said Corey Tierney, Warren County Preservation Director.

Preserving a Piece of History

Momentum to protect the property began several years ago, when—before the landowner, Independence Land Holdings, agreed to sell the property for conservation—the township gave preliminary site plan approval for 118 age-restricted homes on the lower section.

Freeholder Rick Gardner said preserving land along the Morris Canal is one of the county’s priorities.

“Warren County is pleased with the unique purchasing opportunity this property presents,” said Gardner.  “The property contains approximately one half mile of the historic Morris Canal, which remains in remarkably good condition. We will be advancing significantly the goals of the Morris Canal Greenway and future tourism for Warren County.”

An 1860s Engineering Marvel

Before railroads, Tierney noted, this canal helped spur commerce in rural areas like Hackettstown. Businesses sprang up all along the canal and, in fact, there was even a brewery nearby back in the 1860s. Stretching about 100 miles from Phillipsburg to Jersey City, the canal was considered an engineering marvel of its time because it climbed over 900 feet in elevation using sophisticated locks and inclined planes.

“Mules pulled long boats packed full of goods through the water and, given that the trip took about five days, you can easily imagine the boatmen floating along while enjoying the beer they just bought in town. So in addition to the natural beauty of the Mount Rascal, there’s really a lot of history here that we hope to share with visitors,” added Tierney.

Notably, the Mount Rascal Preserve even includes remains of farming homesteads built in the 1800s by early German settlers to the area.

Old Stone Walls

According to the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust website, “Hillside farming was no doubt a hard subsistence. In the forest, visitors will find row after row of stone walls. Farmers gathered and piled these stones by hand and these walls remain as a testament to the difficult tasks of early settlers.”

Although the original stone houses and large barns are now gone, the site of the old stone spring house continues to bubble up clear, cool water. The wetlands on the property are home to the state threatened wood turtle and several rare plant species.

To learn more about the Mount Rascal Preserve, go to http://nj.gov/dep/njnlt/mountrascal.htm


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