FORKED RIVER, N.J. -- Piece by piece, salt marsh by salt marsh, environmentalists and the federal government are pushing to preserve the last tracts of undeveloped shoreline along Barnegat Bay, the shallow 75-square-mile estuary that is one of the least heralded but most important coastal resources in the northeastern United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aided by local and national conservation groups, has expanded its Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge northward along the New Jersey coast to acquire open marshland squeezed between condominiums and expensive waterfront homes that have spread along the bay over the last four decades.
About 7,000 acres have been approved for purchase, pending congressional appropriations, and another 6,600 acres are being studied for acquisition for the Forsythe refuge. The refuge already includes 40,000 acres of wetlands in separate clusters, like an emerald necklace. It is the second largest in the service's Northeast region of 13 states between North Carolina and Canada, after the Great Dismal Swamp refuge in Virginia and North Carolina.
While some hunters, boaters and clammers chafe at the restrictions in the refuge, environmentalists and officials are eager to preserve more shoreline and say the current recession and decline in real-estate prices are aiding their effort.
"The last few years have been a window of opportunity to add valuable land to the refuge," said Rose Harvey, regional vice president of the Trust for Public Land, which acquires environmentally important land for the public. "The opportunity may not exist in the future."
Housing and recreational development, which accelerated during the 1980s, degraded water quality and imperiled tidal wetland along Barnegat Bay's 30-mile length. The bay is a crucial link in the Atlantic flyway for migratory waterfowl, federal and state officials said.
The entire bay, from Bay Head in the north to the Long Beach Island causeway in the south, and most of its watershed lie in Ocean County, the fastest-growing county in the nation's most densely populated state. The year-round population of the county is about 450,000, up from 56,000 in 1950. In the summer, when visitors flock to the beaches and weekend boaters jam the broad bay and estuaries like the Metedeconk River, Toms River and Forked River, the population doubles to about 1 million.
Even with this tremendous growth, and with New York City and Philadelphia barely 90 minutes away by car, Barnegat Bay seemed to retain its natural charm and beauty. It endured heavy recreational use in the summer, but recovered over the winter, residents and visitors believed. There was little industry to pollute local waters.
But changes were taking place over the years that damaged the flyway habitat for tens of thousands of migratory birds that spent at least part of the year on the bay, said Willy deCamp Jr., president of the Izaak Walton League of Ocean County, an environmental group instrumental in obtaining wetlands for the refuge.
By the 1970s federal and state laws had slowed down the wholesale depletion of wetlands through drainage and filling. Permits were no longer routinely issued for lagoons to be dredged out of the shoreline so houses and marinas could rise behind bulkheads, man-made barriers to keep the shore from eroding.
By this time, however, bulkheads had been built along most of the northern bay and its estuaries, preventing water from washing onshore and filtering out impurities, and the marshes and meadows had been replaced by waterfront cottages and expensive homes. Ocean County lost 30 percent of its tidal marsh acreage between 1953 and 1973.
Two strokes of fortune helped preserve the bay shoreline north of Barnegat Inlet, the sole break in 30 miles of barrier island separating the bay from the ocean.
In the early 1950s, the state bought the Phipps Estate, an eight-mile long section of the barrier island immediately north of the inlet, and made it a public park left essentially in its natural state, now called Island Beach State Park.
The other factor was the bay's shallow waters, which range from 1 to 13 feet in depth. Mud-covered shoals and marshes discouraged building along the waterfront if no channels opened to deeper water. It is these undeveloped waterfront lands, for the most part, that are sought for the refuge.
But the lands behind the wetlands were developed for housing, roadways and shopping centers. Brick Township on the mainland just west of the upper bay went from scrub pine woods to a community of more than 65,000, and many of the residents were daily commuters to northern New Jersey and New York. Other subdivisions spread through Dover, Berkeley, Lacey, Ocean and Stafford Townships to the south along the bay, while Manchester Township, in the headwaters of the Toms River, filled with retirement communities.
"The major culprit now is the runoff of gasoline products, fertilizers and animal wastes from roadways and lawns," said Mr. deCamp, who owns a summer home in Mantoloking. "It all ends && up in the bay."
Environmentalists say the stakes in Barnegat Bay are considerable.
These wetlands serve as the winter home for 35 percent of the entire Atlantic flyway population of black ducks and 70 percent of the flyway's American brant population, according to Fish and Wildlife estimates. Further, the bay is an important feeding, nesting and migratory habitat for 287 other species of waterfowl and birds, officials said.
A decline in water quality has also hurt fish and shellfish in the bay, reducing the recreational and commercial catch and forcing many of the area's traditional baymen to abandon clamming and seek other work in a county where unemployment is more than 9 percent.
There is also concern that increased boat traffic in the summer may cause turbidity that blocks sunlight from reaching eelgrass on the bay bottom that forms an important part of the local food chain.
These issues, while not exclusive to the area, are showing tentative signs of uniting Ocean County residents who have always been separated by water, economics, summer or winter residency and even preferences like motorboats over sail.
"Concern over the bay is beginning to knit together a whole new pattern of people," said John Sly, a retired educational consultant who lived in Princeton and summered in Seaside Park before building a home outside Forked River 10 years ago. A total of 33 local governments have some authority in the bay and its watershed, and this often makes consensus difficult, he said.
"It drives me insane when people say they're only worried about what happens in their neighborhood," said Mr. Sly, 67.
The bay, all 75 square miles of it, is at everyone's front door, he said, and what affects one corner of it will eventually affect
another corner of it.
Mr. Sly's backdoor looks out across 350 acres of salt marsh that the federal wildlife officials are investigating, along with 10 other mainland tracts and six bay islands, for inclusion in the Forsythe refuge.
If the purchase is approved, it may take years for Congress to appropriate funds under the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965. To aid the sales, conservation groups like the Trust for Public Lands may act as a middleman, buying the properties and conveying them to public agencies as funds become available.
Not everyone is thrilled with the expansion of the refuge.
While the wildlife service has a stated policy of buying land only from "willing sellers," real-estate developers often opt for the federal money only after exhausting legal ways to maximize profits by getting around local, state and federal restrictions on building on wetlands.
Some people, chiefly hunters, are unhappy with refuge management policy, which they say is too restrictive on the shooting of animals in an area with a tradition of gunning clubs and duck blinds on marshes previously in private hands. Boaters and clammers also complain that the refuge, with its boating and clamming limits, shuts them off from many areas that made living near the bay so enjoyable.
Generally, though, these same critics agree they would rather see the tidelands protected than undergo the kind of development that has transformed land surrounding the bay from a semi-rural wilderness into a hodgepodge of single-family houses and strip shopping centers.