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New Jersey Lauds 'Contract With Trees'


Drive 40 miles outside Manhattan and you'll find one of the region's last undeveloped chunks of private property.

Bisected by the Appalachian Trail and home to bobcats, black bear, red-shouldered hawks, and rattlesnakes, Sterling Forest is a private recreational refuge of lakes and streams that provides drinking water for some 2 million New Jerseyans.

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Until recently, environmental groups had fought the main owners of Sterling Forest, who were planning a 13,000-house development. In March, they received an unlikely ally: Newt Gingrich.

The Republican House Speaker who had recently wanted to gut the Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed at a local press conference, "We are going to save Sterling Forest."

This move stunned many activists. "It was unexpected, because he generally has been seen as anti-environmental," says Sally Dudley of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

When the 104th Congress essentially ends its term with tommorow's election, environmentalists will exhale in relief. Mr. Gingrich and the first Republican-dominated Congress in 40 years did not sell the farm.

In fact, the final act of this Congress was quite "green," in part because the GOP recognized the popularity of environmental causes, albeit in an election year. But it also may be due to a longer-term shift to the center by some moderate Republicans.

The parks and public lands bill, which passed the Senate last month, was one of the most pro-environment pieces of legislation in two years.

When President Clinton signs the bill in the coming days, it will allocate $17.5 million to help buy and protect 17,000 acres in the Sterling Forest.

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It will also create federally protected forests and historic sights in 41 states, including the first protected tall-grass prairie in Kansas, an historic trail in Alabama commemorating Martin Luther King's Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, and a trust fund to protect the Presidio military base in San Francisco.

Not that the GOP is at risk of being dubbed the green party.

Some environmentalists say Congress became more cautious after the showdown with Mr. Clinton over the budget and the temporary government shutdown. That caution prevented them from pushing through bills to allow corporate sponsorship of parks, to restrict EPA regulatory powers, and to revamp the Endangered Species Act. Even the parks bill, in an earlier version, would have allowed a pulp company to log Tongass National Forest for another 20 years.

"There was a sense of relief on the day the Senate adjourned last month," says Phil Pittman at the National Resources Defense Council in Washington. "While it may be true that its final vote did some good things, look at what didn't pass."

But some observers see a new breed of Republican gaining a foothold in a party known more for its conservatism. They are Republicans who want to cut the budget but also save forests and grant women the right to an abortion.

New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert has even been accused by his own party of working too closely with environmental groups. New Jersey Rep. Marge Roukema has received an endorsement from the state Sierra Club.

"It's perfectly consistent ... to be a conservative and a conservationist," says New Jersey Rep. Richard Zimmer - who seeks to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley tomorrow and likens himself to past GOP environmentalists like President Teddy Roosevelt. "And I'm glad that the party is beginning to recognize that. Certainly it's to our advantage that we do so."

In the case of Sterling Forest, environmentalists argue it is also to New Jersey's and New York's advantage. "I'm pretty impressed that it actually made it through,'' says David Moore, director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "We needed this, if we want to have clean water to drink in New Jersey."

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