South Mountain Reservation, a 2,110 acre woodland replete with waterfalls, forests, picnic and recreation areas and a rich biome was designated at the end of the 19th century. It is a locale of many historically important sites dating back to the American Revolution.
The reservation was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park and other famous preserved lands. South Mountain has been enjoyed by generations of residents and abuts on six different towns. A small zoo, the Turtle Back Zoo was designed as part of the Reservation on just 15.5 acres and intended as a children’s petting zoo with a fairy tale theme for local children. The environmental impact of the original zoo was deliberately limited and included a small train that ran through a part of the reservation.
Since 2003, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo has used questionable means to clearcut 10 acres of the reservation to dramatically expand the zoo, installing amusement-park style attractions such as a carousel, zip lines, mini-golf, a restaurant, paddle boats and parking structures. He has also added exotic animals, including many for whom the climate of New Jersey is inappropriate and hazardous resulting in maltreatment and deaths. In 2017, a giraffe died of a toothache. This summer, a beloved lion died.
The county has claimed that the zoo plays an important role in conservation of animal species and the education of the public on the importance of conservation. The very fact that so much damage has been caused to preserved land with more to come belies this specious claim. That the Zoo would tout the importance of the environment and its inhabitants, while refusing requests to complete an environmental impact study is unacceptable..
Since the Turtle Back Zoo began its expansion & marketing campaign, human and vehicle traffic to the zoo has increased dramatically and profits have vanished into the coffers of the county rather than being used to increase conservation or benefit the local communities in any way. (Driving along Northfield Avenue on any given "beautiful day" or during the Zoo's holiday light show is proof enough why the County is reluctant to share traffic or crash data.)
Now, the county is set on more destruction paid for by millions of your tax dollars. An additional 135 trees are to be clear-cut to make way for a 500 seat “Conservation Pavillon”. (A genius marketing ploy for such a destructive project…)
The county argues that the pavilion is necessary to accommodate the supposed educational needs of school and private groups visiting the zoo. In reality, the proposed pavilion more closely resembles a circus with entertainment-oriented gigantic LED lighting, screens and a sound system that will further damage and degrade the environment. Neighboring residents, whose lifestyle has already been negatively impact, are concerned about the effect of more noise, light, air pollution, congestion and crowds.
In addition, the pavilion’s proposed crate-style animal cages (fitted with slamming guillotine gates) highlight that the planned animal demonstrations are really entertainment-oriented performances with wild animals being subjected to stress and cruelty rather than cared for and nurtured. This is in violation of the newly enacted “Nosey Law,” signed by Governor Murphy to prohibit the use of exotic animals in traveling circus acts. According to the Zoo's written description, there are plans in place to rent out the pavilion for private functions and performances at “premium prices,” further damaging the natural environment.
Finally, the entire planning process has taken place without any regard to the master development plans of surrounding townships, and was created by planners who are unlicensed in New Jersey.
The “Conservation Pavillon” is anything but. If the county’s plans are allowed to go through, then not only will irreparable damage have been done to one of Essex County’s last natural spaces, but a path will have been paved for further encroachment and destruction. As a result of the clear-cutting that has already happened, local roads are repeatedly flooded. Further clear-cutting will cause even more damage. Educating children about conservation should not be done at the expense of animals and the environment. We know better, please help educate our elected and appointed officials to know better, too.
The zoo has already been expanded several times. Why does the Essex County Executive want to expand the Turtle Back Zoo yet again?
County Executive Joe DiVincenzo claims that the zoo needs a 500 seat amphitheater to provide education for the thousands of students who visit the zoo each year. However studies show students learn better in smaller settings and there already is a smaller amphitheater in the zoo.
What sort of education is the County Executive talking about?
Wild animals will be forced into small enclosures and then paraded out before large audiences using strobe & LED lighting rigs, and a full speaker system.
How is this education rather than entertainment?
It’s not. Animals being displayed in this way before large crowds have little to no educational value and cause the animals stress and extreme discomfort. In reality, the county plans to rent out the pavilion to private groups. We can expect concerts, parties and other entertainment to take place there as the county collects “premium” rental fees.
Why is such a large amphitheater needed?
The county wants to increase attendance at the zoo from the current 900,000 visitors/year to 1.2 million. This will cause more traffic, sound and light pollution and damage our last large forest. All effecting the suburban neighbors.
How many trees have to be destroyed for this latest expansion?
At least 135 mature trees and many, many smaller trees, undergrowth, plants and wildflowers; an entire habitat in fact. And this is not the first time. In total, since 2005 more than 10 acres have been destroyed. Hundreds of trees.
Is that so bad? Doesn’t growth have to happen?
The South Mountain Reservation is the last large wild space in Essex County. Already the county has destroyed significant parts of this historic land to build a zip line, mini-golf course, and confined artificial habitats for exotic animal ill suited to our climate. They have taken away a natural resource placed in trust for the citizens of Essex County to make money for the county. Surely land that has already been zoned and developed can be devoted to these purposes, if they are really needed, not this historic Reservation.
Besides harming trees and animals, what else is wrong with the project?
As we watch an entire continent go up in flames, as the ice caps melt and species are wiped out every few days, do we want to destroy more open space? Trees and plants also absorb and preserve enormous amounts of the most precious resource on the planet: water and they offset tons of carbon dioxide. Now that so many trees have been chopped down, the roads flood after each rain.
If the amphitheater is built, will more expansion and more destruction take place?
Looking at how the county has behaved in the past, there is every reason to be concerned that yet more land will be seized for other destructive projects. In fact, their own plan projects development in almost every direction.
What is the name of this amphitheater project?
When the county discovered that many citizens opposed this destructive and unnecessary Amphitheater project, they decided to call it the “Conservation Pavilion.” Many people find this offensive: what kind of “conservation” destroys natural habitat to put up an entertainment arena? It’s a CON.
What can we do about all this?
When young people, especially students in Essex County, speak out, it makes a big impact. Students are not a passive audience, they are citizens, leaders and have a stake in the future—their future. The few students protesting at recent Town Council Meetings and hearings have been hard to ignore.
When we attend meetings, what can we say?
Share your feelings about having more land destroyed, more animals mistreated and all in your name and in the name of your education and for the supposed betterment of your home and community. One or two talking points are all that is needed; speak directly from your heart.
Essex County prides itself on the Turtle Back Zoo, while many West Orange residents say enough is enough. Traffic, parking, pedestrian safety, animals that don't thrive in NJ climates... West Orange is not Orlando, and residents don't want a Disney in their back yard.
Help give the Zoo animals a voice, and lend a hand to West Orange residents, friends, and family. Please consider signing the TBZ Petition. Thank you!
Essex County is spending millions to upgrade the Turtle Back Zoo.
Location: Turtle Back Zoo Education Center, 560 Northfield Ave., W.O.
OGWO states: "The Zoo is now on the verge of becoming both a nuisance and a danger. With 900,000 annual visitors in 2017, the traffic is now noticeable.
Trees have been planted to replace those that have been cut down for zoo expansion, but they are too close together. One cannot replace a forest ecosystem with trees scattered in traffic areas. The South Mountain reservation was not meant to be developed, it is a reserve.
We are also concerned about the potential for accidents to both pedestrians, visitors, and to the animals themselves. Limited sidewalk and parking options for visitors, poor shuttle service, loss of parking spaces for entrance expansion, seating for persons with disabilities, traffic entanglements on a busy and major thoroughfare, loss of trees and reservation land, and so many rare animals out of their native environments and in the hands of accident-prone humans.
We need to focus on protected land for animals to run free and live normal lives, not be traded, transported or exhibited to the public.
Please consider attending Freeholder meetings to share your thoughts on the Zoo's expansion, attend Town Council Meetings to share your concerns during public comment, write the County Executive, and sign the petition stating that the ZOO IS BIG ENOUGH.
WO does not need $900,000 spent on flamingos - we need $900,000 spent on safety and protection of our natural environment!"
Anthony Puglisi (County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo's spokesperson) presented the latest news about the Turtle Back Zoo's expansion. He answered questions sent to him by former Councilman Joseph Krakoviak. (From traffic, environmental impacts, and noise, to costs, safety, and transparency.)
As reported by a West Orange resident, and member of OGWO: "The Turtle Back Zoo wants to build a five-story parking deck on the site of the train station and move the train station nearby. 75 trees will come down and 130 trees are to be planted.It was a fiery evening of questioning the Zoo’s engineers and landscape architect. Even the PB weighed in, especially Lee Klein a traffic engineer on the PB. Everyone was incredulous that there was no traffic study to justify the parking deck and the egress and exit off of Northfield Ave!Harvey Grossman [WO Public Advocate] also brought up an important matter: the fire codes suggested by our Fire Department were not being adhered to. Imagine a fire breaking out in the train depot or parking area? He vigorously reprimanded them. It was heartwarming.Why is this important? It is a quality of life issue for WO residents who don’t want our corner of the reservation made into Disneyland. We also don’t want elephants and grizzly bears brought in. How could we sleep at night, knowing they were locked into pens?We need the zoo to stop driving attendance.As one resident asked, “What is the capacity of the area? If you are in a restaurant there is a sign on the wall that states the capacity allowed…..”She added that it took her an hour to drive from the Millburn Diner to her home in West Orange on a Saturday morning.
Human activities that rely on animals can become desperate operations, often defended and obscured by those who make their living from them. Thus the drive for more and bigger animals and more crowds, to prove how great the humans are.At 10:45 the PB proposed a resolution asking the Zoo for: A traffic study, a green wall to hide the monstrosity, upgrade to the fire prevention plan and a landscape plan.The County can decide to comply or not."
South Mountain Conservancy Writes the County
A sample of some of SMC's recommendations for the County:
...while we think that the County’s announcement of public hearings on the master plan is excellent, the process from the start should have included stakeholders, both West Orange and the Conservancy. That was not the case. Too much money and precious land is at stake for this to have been developed in a vacuum.
As reported by Essex County resident Judith Rosenthal, esq. (who was in attendance at both the Essex County Open Space Advisory Board, and the Essex County Freeholders meetings, July 8 & 10, 2019):
Freeholder President Brendan Gill has issued the following statement in response to community concerns regarding proposed construction and expansion at Turtle Back Zoo: