By Michele S. Byers
You wouldn't know it from the weather, but spring is only 41/2 weeks away. Almost time to lace up our hiking boots, jump on our mountain bikes or saddle up horses, and enjoy New Jersey's trails.
This time of year, staff and volunteers at parks, nature preserves, and recreation areas are busy planning for upcoming work to build, improve, and maintain trails.
But for this state we're in, planning has been replaced with frustration over a bureaucratic glitch. Nearly $1 million in 2013 federal funds earmarked for New Jersey trail projects are not moving. The glitch - a staffing issue within the state Department of Environmental Protection - is also holding up another $1 million in 2014 grant funds.
The $2 million in trail funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Program, right out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, representing part of the gasoline tax.
Since the trails program began in 1993, more than $17 million has been awarded to state, county, and local government agencies and nonprofits in New Jersey. That money buys a lot of trails, along with jobs and ecotourism dollars.
Why should New Jersey to leave these federal trail funds on the table - only to have them given to another state?
Among the 40 trail projects slated for funding from 2013 are improvements to the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, Watchung Reservation, Liberty State Park, Hacklebarney State Park, Round Valley Recreation Area, Patriots' Path in Morris County, Batona Trail through the Pine Barrens, Allaire State Park, Stokes State Forest, Gloucester Township bike path, and St. Michael's Farm Preserve in Hopewell.
A few projects involve "water trails," where people can canoe and kayak, including the Tidal Maurice River Water Trail and the Meadowlands Paddle Trails.
The glitch holding up these and other worthy projects involves the administration of the Recreational Trails Program. In recent years, a staff member within the DEP - paid with federal funds - has administered the grants.
But in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many DEP staff members - including the trails program administrator - were shifted to "Blue Acres" acquisitions of flood-prone properties. That left no one to keep the trails program going.
The DEP recently announced to the New Jersey Trails Council - an advisory group that voluntarily evaluates and ranks grant applications - that the 2013 and 2014 funds are suspended. Predictably, there has been an outcry.
"While the Council certainly understands the state's high priority in assisting communities and homeowners impacted by the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy, we also note that the Trails Program . . . is crucial to improving community conservation infrastructure and bolsters local economic development through tourism and related outdoor recreation activity," wrote William Foelsch, chairman of the council.
Foelsch suggested that the DEP use the federal money designated for the administrator's salary to supplement its own staff, temporarily hire an experienced contract employee, or temporarily contract with a nonprofit group to administer the program.
Those are all good options, and the DEP should waste no time in choosing one of them. Spring is coming, and these projects should not be shelved. They have the added benefit of providing summer youth employment through groups like the Student Conservation Association.
New Jersey's excellent trail networks are well used by hikers, bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts. We need to encourage more and better trails, not suspend them.
Help New Jersey keep its federal trail funds. Contact DEP Commissioner Bob Martin - via www.state.nj.us/dep/commissioner or 609-292-2885 - and urge him to put a trail grant administrator on the job immediately.