Murder and Mayham on Delaware Bay
The winter sun moves low across the Delaware Bayshore indifferent to the violence that has sadly become commonplace only a few miles away. This uninhabited sandy beach and the expansive marsh behind gradually give way to an unpeopled forest and productive farm land all the way to Bridgeton, NJ. In stark contrast, this run-down small city is an epicenter of violence that rings the bayshore. At least in this respect the bay is like few other natural areas in North America. Eleven people were murdered in Cumberland County in 2014, which typically sees 10 or more a year. Bridgeton, the county seat, is one of the deadliest city’s in the northeast Your chances of being robbed raped, beaten or carjacked are better in this crumbling city than almost any other place in the country.
Yet all this carnage takes place along one of the most alluring seascapes in the mid-Atlantic. Good conservation takes place on Delaware Bay because it’s the focus of some of the country’s most effective shorebird protection efforts in the country. It is as though people living in one of the most dangerous places in the country hasn’t anything to do with conservation. Is this so? Can wildlife conservation help in anyway?
Within Bullet Range – Good Conservation
Within bullet range of Bridgeton, you can slide a kayak into the Cohansey River and feel the gentle northwest winds whipping up a shallow sea against a thin strand of sand accessible only by boat. As passing freighters plow there way down the narrow shipping channel to the Atlantic, you will see no one on this thin strand of sand. Ironically you are truly alone in the most densely populated state in the country. Look down at your feet and see in the sand clear sign of bald eagles testing other eagles, river otter slinking into a marshy hideway, coyotes zig sagging in search of anything edible, If you look very closely you’ll see the fragile tracks of a rice rat, nearly a bay exclusive. Look towards land and you’ll see forests lining the shoreline unbroken except for the occasional farm field-stretching out to the sea’s edge. Beyond this lies a dangerous place.
The closest city to the bayshore is Bridgeton, on the Cohansey River and minutes away from bucolic Greenwich NJ, where I live and now write. You have a 1 in 70 chance of getting beaten up, raped, robbed or murdered in Bridgeton far lower than 1 in 347 for the state. The crime rate for the US is 27.9/ square mile, in NJ – a state that clings to its mafia heritage almost equally to it revolutionary war heros – has a more robust 79 crimes /square mile. Bridgeton crashes through the floor with a whopping 238 crimes /square mile. Salem and Millville , nearby Delaware Bay, sport similar rates. The bayshore curdles with bad guys
And yet we conservationists pursue our craft as though all this is extraneous. In some ways it is. Thousands of acres have been locked away for all the people living in places like Cherry Hill ( 97 crimes/square mile) or Morris Plains (25 crimes/square mile). The state has vigorously pursued the protection of land for wildlife and wild land though aggressive land acquisition and regulation. The conservationist in me celebrates this.
As a bayshore resident I cannot see this any other way but social injustice. Why have the conservation groups, national and state, ignored the fate of the people on whom one would normally rely upon to insure conservation. The bayshore has one of the highest unemployment rate in the country, lowest per capita incomes in the mid Atlantic, and one of the highest property tax rates. Residents pay on average, three times the property tax rates that the rich of Atlantic Coast communities pay and for fewer services, substandard schools, and inadequate sanitation. That the area is awash in misfortune should cling to a good conservationist because it matters to the success of our work.
Can Wildlife Conservationists Help?
The situation for the residents of Delaware Bayshore is unlikely to change soon. Chris Christie, the governor of NJ, can’t devote too much attention to state matters, he too busy proving he can run the country. Ironically he just doesn’t have the time to be governor. The wizards of urban planning and policy in Universities like Princeton, can ill afford solving problems in their own backyard because real money lies elsewhere. No one seems to think much about NJ being the wealthiest state in the nation, but with rural poverty equal to Alabama (17 crimes/sq mile) or deep woods Louisiana (37 crimes/sq mile). All this abutting one of the most important and wonderous wild places int he country.
I could go on with this, but the reader must get the point. How does a conservationist process this? How can conservationists deal with the glaring social injustice wrought upon a people that only want to maintain a rural life consistent with the goals of most conservationists?
There are many ways of course but one of the most important is habitat restoration. Over the last four years a team of wildlife scientists, managers and agency regulators ( including the author) have restored over two miles of Hurricane Sandy damaged bayshore for the benefits of wildlife and people. Led by the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, this restoration of wildlife habitat substantively improved conditions for breeding horseshoe crabs and the migratory shorebirds relying on them. This work benefits Bayshore communities in the way they need it.
That it happened at all was important. As one would expect the politicians of the state left the bayshore out of the largess showered upon the rich communities of NJ’s Atlantic Coast. Of the restoration that did take place all came from conservation funding.
The projects also create well paying jobs. Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation funded the work, groups paid “prevailing rate” meaning companies must pay the rate equal to a union worker. For the operator of a machine that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and kills or maims with the ease of giant beast, it means a fair $70/hour as compared to a barely livable $30/hour. The work also consumes sand from local sandmines. Last year one project resulted in the sale of 40,000 cubic yards of sand from a mildly depressed local sand market. Finally when the job is done, the restored beach attracts fishermen and other outdoor users who support community business. This work rebuilds communities.
Obviously this is more a balm than a real cure. State and federal agencies can only do that and both seem incapable of effective action. Thus the shameful neglect of the bayshore is likely to last. But as I point out in the previous post, international and national policy edge ever closer to more substantive actions to combat climate change. The restoration of habitat to full function would create real improvement by creating resiliency to sea level rise and more effective carbon capture. Good for wildlife and people.