Rifle Camp Park is an often overlooked part of the Passaic County park system. It sits a stone’s throw from the Garret Mountain Reservation which sees thousands of visitors every year and boasts, among other attractions, Lambert Tower, Lambert Castle and Barbour’s Pond. For many reasons, Rifle Camp Park does not enjoy the same exposure and visitation as others in the park system.
Admittedly, with the lack of visitors has come a lack of investment and upkeep. This is something the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders has attempted to remedy. With the passage of the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Master Plan in 2014, a road map was created for both short- and long-term priorities that need to be addressed at Rifle Camp Park and within the entire Passaic County park system.
At its inception, Rifle Camp Park was envisioned as a recreational facility that offered a mix of attractions for visitors. A toboggan run for children to sled in the winter. Hiking trails weave throughout the park. An amphitheater and environmental center for entertainment and educational events. A fitness course, camping grounds and basketball court all features in the park’s original design.
The Master Plan included repairing existing recreation facilities, the inclusion of new amenities and “the development of the park for winter sports and activities.” By no means is the Master Plan an all-inclusive document encompassing every amenity that might be brought to a park. It is a living blueprint that “presents recommendations for the improvement of the Passaic County Park System, and a vision for its future.”
It was determined that a disc golf course was a low-impact attraction that could be installed in Rifle Camp Park as a strategy for drawing new visitors while limiting the effect to the eco-system.
This conclusion wasn’t reached without coordination and consultation with experts. The County has a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection certified forester that is involved in all decisions regarding the management of the County’s inventory of parkland and forests.
He reached two determinations with respect to the layout of the disc golf course. First, the course was designed to limit tree removal and use preexisting cleared areas. Next, any trees marked for removal would be lost regardless due to competition for light and nutrients because they are in what’s called the “stem exclusion” stage of development. In layman’s terms, because there is limited sunlight and nutrients, the elimination of some trees is actually beneficial to the overall health of the forest and protects its future growth.
The board takes its stewardship of County-owned forests with the utmost seriousness.
Over the last two years, this Freeholder Board earmarked over $100,000 for the treatment and maintenance of trees, especially those susceptible to disease from the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive beetle that disrupts the trees ability to transport water and nutrients. Likewise, we are in the process of finalizing a forest management plan with the DEP that will open new funding sources for stewardship initiatives and guide the County in its protection of the ecosystem in Passaic County’s forests.
There are a few misconceptions that need to be addressed.
First, Rifle Camp Park was never meant to be strictly a preserve. It was always an active park with a mix of recreational amenities. Next, Passaic County has been in constant communication with the DEP and Green Acres with respect to this project and others in our park system. Both parties are in agreement that the installation of a disc golf course does not constitute a change in use and is allowable under the rules and regulations governing Green Acres-funded parkland.
Finally, this disc golf course does not jeopardize the eco-system or biodiversity at Rifle Camp Park. We are confident that once this course is installed opponents will be relieved by its low impact and relative obscurity within the 169 acres of Rifle Camp.
The board respects and hears the emotions on both sides of this issue. Input is welcome from all interested parties and stakeholders, including the Friends of Garret Mountain and others with a stake in the future of the Passaic County parksystem. That is why County staff reached out to the Friends earlier this year to discuss the disc golf course and other proposed improvements to Rifle Camp Park.
We will continue an open and civil dialogue moving forward with the shared goal of making the Passaic County park system one of the best in New Jersey.
Pasquale “Pat” Lepore, a Democrat, is a five-term Passaic County freeholder and former mayor and councilman in Woodland Park.