Nearly 25,000 acres are currently preserved by Somerset County, 14,000 open space acres and another 9,000 of farmland.

The county would like to bring those numbers to 24,000 and 16,000 acres respectively, and there is a three-pronged Somerset County Preservation Plan that officials hope will be the blueprint of how they get there.

According to Commissioner Deputy Director Melonie Marano, it may be the first such synergistic effort in New Jersey, or even the entire United States, to bring open space, farmland, and historic preservation all under one umbrella.

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She touts the economic benefits that could be brought to the region through the expansion of this preserved land.

"Apple picking, pumpkin picking, hayrides, farmers markets — not only is this great for our economy, through our agriculture, but it also gives us food security in our area," Marano said.

'Environmental tourism is great tourism'

Meanwhile, Marano emphasized other existing activities that would be protected under preservation actions, like countywide birdwatching areas, or the bike trails along the D&R Canal.

As she puts it, "environmental tourism is great tourism."

"Our standard preservation efforts are for places that are of key importance, environmentally speaking. It also is looking at flood control and stormwater management for our open space preservation," Marano said.

Marano added that the county's eyes are "acutely on" anything it can do to improve flood mitigation.

Looking toward the U.S. 250th

County officials aim to continue working with their nonprofit partners, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Sourlands Conservancy, and Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, to identify areas ripe for protection.

"We always have our sights on something. We're always looking for that next great opportunity that will fit in with our open space inventory," Marano said.

While a timeline for how the plan will play out is unclear, Marano did say it is at least somewhat connected to a hoped-for boost in tourism as the U.S. nears its 250th anniversary in 2026.

"We want to continue to preserve as much land as we can to continue those opportunities," she said. "Environmental preservation, historic preservation, and farmland preservation are key to economic growth."

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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