West Milford - Many still wrangling over Jungle Habitat site

Date Published: 
Sun, 02/12/2006

In a place carpeted with plush forests, the naked eye sees open space, everywhere, unaware that outsiders own many miles of West Milford's greenery and that any negotiable parcels of land are forever up for grabs.

Enter Jungle Habitat.

Bound by a state park to the north and a state forest to the south, the 800-acre Jungle Habitat is prized by town officials, environmentalists and recreation proponents alike for vastly different reasons. All three parties call the abandoned Warner Bros. safari theme park - with a former entrance on Airport Road - a "diamond in the rough" for its potential to generate revenue, to serve as open space, or to carry new ball fields and skate parks.

When the New Jersey Green Acres program acquired the long abandoned park roughly about 10 years ago, Jungle Habitat became a feverishly sought-after property with each interested group calling for various uses.
That still holds true today.

"A lot of interest has to do with 26 miles of paved roads," said Councilman Carmelo Scangarello, the town's Green Acre liaison, noting the former park's existing features.

An 80-acre portion of the property is now the subject of a draft lease agreement between Green Acres and West Milford Township. According to the agreement, town officials would be entitled to a 20-year lease for a nominal $1 fee. The lease, which is still in the works, is part of a larger land deal that yielded $1.2 million to the township in exchange for the sale of a 412-acre Redevelopment Property to the state.

As part of the negotiations process, Scangarello expressed interest in using all 800 acres of the property to promote Jungle Habitat as a hiking destination. After all, the existing trails and roads cut through the entire site-not just an 80-acre slice he said. At Town Council meetings late last year, Scangarello announced that the state appeared receptive to the idea of promoting the site's hiking trails and considered transferring the use of Jungle Habitat in its entirety to the township.

In particular, Scangrello said that Alvin Payne, leasing manager within the state Division of Parks and Forestry, appeared open to the township's interest during a site visit. Though Payne could not be reached for comment, Green Acres Administrator John Flynn said that the state hasn't considered granting West Milford's wish.

"I think that the councilman got a little ahead of himself on that," Flynn said in a recent phone interview. "The agreement was only for 80 acres of the land. We have never moved into discussions about the larger tract. And if the township was interested in managing all 800 acres, we probably wouldn't do it as a lease."

This month, Lisa P. Jackson, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's acting commissioner, reiterated Flynn's comments in an email to a private resident who had inquired about Jungle Habitat's future use. She also shot down rumors suggesting that there are plans for an off road vehicle or ORV park at the site.

"Please be advised that the Department of Environmental Protection has not offered a lease to the municipality for the entire property," Jackson wrote.
"In addition, we have no plans for an ORV park on this site at this time."

"We are, however, in discussions with West Milford Township officials to lease approximately 80 acres where the existing parking lots are located for use as recreational fields," she added. "Additionally, West Milford has expressed interest in opening and managing the trails that run through the property for non-motorized use."

While Scangarello may have made more of the township's hiking vision than the state, many agree that Jungle Habitat - with its leftover trails and parking lots - can be a major tourist attraction once again.

Warner Bros. first opened Jungle Habitat in 1972, touting it as the region's premiere drive-through safari. Visitors were able to view peacocks, baboons, camels, elephants and tigers from the comfort of their cars.

But the park made headlines the summer of that year when lions allegedly mauled a male tourist who had rolled down his car window. Press coverage of similar animal encounters and the opening of Six Flags Great Adventure in the mid-1970s eventually forced Warner Bros. to shut down the park within four years of its debut.

Undisturbed trails and car lots lie intact even today. In the summer of 2004, the township started hosting annual Cole Bros. circuses and Fourth of July fireworks there as ways to revive the site's recreation potential. In the first year alone, profits climbed above $20,000.

Currently, council members are also working to schedule a summer concert series at Jungle Habitat with Sayreville-based Concerts East Inc.

For long-term use, Dennis Schvejda of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference envisions a reopening of the site's trails so that they are user-friendly. Right now, a power line crosses the 14-mile Hewitt-Butler Trail that cuts through Jungle Habitat.

"The trail has been around for many decades but it was rerouted when the original Jungle Habitat opened," Schvejda said. "Now we're looking to realign the trail away from the power line and have it go more toward the woods. That would make a much more pleasant experience for the hikers."

The Burnt Meadow Trail and Highlands Trail also traverse the area.
Like-minded environmentalists say Jungle Habitat lies between Norvin Green State Forest and Long Pond Ironworks Park, forming a natural greenway that should be protected and used for passive recreation only.

But they are not the only ones prospecting the site,

About five years ago a local group called Xtreme Habitat started advocating for an active recreation facility at the deserted park. Members proposed a bicycle motocross track, a skate park and trails for mountain bikes, motorcycles, off road vehicles, and all terrain vehicles. Discussions with the state fell through after unexpected delays, but the group is still interested in creating an extreme sports hub somewhere in West Milford.

However, environmentalists worry about possible site damage and noise pollution. They prefer to have Jungle Habitat repopulated with hikers rather than skateboarders.

Meanwhile, residents involved in community recreation say Jungle Habitat would be the perfect setting for new ball fields and pocket parks.

Through the township is dotted with several parks, many are overused and unsuitable for sports tournaments, parents say.

One spruced up, the old Warner Bros. site could be a place for regional matches, drawing all sorts of revenue. Town officials hope the community's ideas will overlap at some point.

"Passive recreation I think is an option that everyone will find very acceptable," Scangarello said. "I think it's a great way to use what's already there."

Suburban Trends
By Sharbai Rose