Dismaland: Destroying a Forest to Build a Solar-Powered Amusement Park

Six Flags wants to go green by replacing an environmentally important woodland in New Jersey with a giant photovoltaic power plant.
(Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Oct 12, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

I have a lot of fond memories of the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, New Jersey. When my kids were small, we made regular trips to visit grandparents at the Jersey Shore, and many summers we also headed 24 miles inland for a day braving the latest thrill rides (or just the merry-go-round). But those fond memories are fading fast.

Early this year, John Fitzgerald, president of Six Flags Great Adventure, announced a plan to build the world’s first solar-powered amusement park. He touted it as “part of our ongoing commitment to conservation and eco-friendly initiatives” and said it would also “enhance our role as good stewards of the environment.” The press release went on to boast that Great Adventure, which includes a 350-acre Safari Park, “has cared for more than 70 different species of animals, including some that are endangered and even extinct in the wild.” Taking the park off fossil fuels sounded smart, and also market-sensitive, at a time when its many customers on the Jersey Shore are still recovering from the climate change–aggravated devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

But there is a sticking point: The park wants to clear-cut roughly 18,000 trees on 90 acres of Pine Barrens ecosystem forest to make room for a solar farm. Six Flags plans to compensate for the immediate loss of 18,000 mature trees by planting 27,000 immature trees somewhere else on its property over a seven-year period.

(This is a wildlife column, but bear with me for a moment while I rant about the skewed carbon footprint mathematics that often characterize environmental trade-off schemes, including this one: 18,000 trees growing 30 years on average—a conservative estimate—represent 540,000 years of carbon storage. Instead, the park wants to plant 27,000 trees growing, say, three years, for 81,000 years of carbon storage. But let’s give it credit: Maybe Six Flags will spring for four-year-old trees. That’s just 108,000 years of carbon storage—or a quarter of what it plans to destroy. Is this the kind of accounting that passes muster anywhere other than in the public relations department? Sorry, I’m done now.)

If Great Adventure somehow imagined its solar plan “would bring green accolades its way,” the Asbury Park Press soon editorialized, “it was sorely mistaken.” Saving the world on the lines Fitzgerald proposed, the editorial concluded, was like the American major in the Vietnam War who notoriously said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Conservationists pointed out that the acreage Six Flags Great Adventure is targeting is the headwaters of two environmentally sensitive streams, tributaries of the Toms River and Crosswicks Creek. It is also home to nesting bald eagles, still a protected species, and possibly also to the Pine Barrens tree frog, which is threatened by habitat loss. I say “possibly” because Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told me in an email that “we cannot get on the property to do surveys for the tree frog or pitcher plant or anything else.”

In a recent op-ed, Tittel argued that Fitzgerald’s solar proposal doesn’t make sense even on business grounds: “Clear-cutting 18,000 trees on environmentally sensitive lands will not only cause destruction, but it will take longer to achieve permits for wetlands, wetlands buffers, buffer hazards and storm water, and take threatened and endangered species habitat.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection has gone on the record opposing the proposal, which involves a site adjacent to the 13,000-acre Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area. In a letter to the park’s parent company, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, a DEP official wrote, “We have consistently held that any solar project should be sited on existing buildings, parking lots, remediated brownfields, properly closed landfills or other previously developed land in order to limit environmental impacts. We oppose large solar projects that damage or destroy previously undisturbed natural resources, such as the project you propose.” The letter suggested that Six Flags Great Adventure instead sell the forest to the state’s Green Acres program.

In an interview, Tittel wondered why the amusement park isn’t proposing to put carport-style solar in its 200 acres of parking lot and in other developed areas of the park. That rang a bell for me, because my one unhappy memory of the place has to do with herding my kids on the long slog in scorching sun across vast areas of blacktop. Carport-style solar wouldn’t just power the amusement park; it would also provide shade.

It might perhaps be more expensive. But Tittel pointed out that raw land in the area now sells for about $10,000 an acre. Six Flags Great Adventure could probably haggle for a premium on that 90-acre forest and use the roughly $1 million payment to defray any added cost of doing carport solar. It’s not like parking lot solar hasn’t been tried before.

Just 43 minutes away, on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, a 28-acre parking lot has been producing eight megawatts of power since 2011. Mike Kornitas, director of sustainability there, says its canopy system was significantly cheaper than a ground-based solar facility installed three years earlier. Also, it’s a nice spot for football tailgates. Rutgers is of course a government institution and doesn’t know much about business. But Kornitas says the parking lot canopies provide 53 percent of the peak electric demand on campus—and have been cash-positive from day one. You’d think a smart business guy like John Fitzgerald could do at least as well.

The sad thing here is that Fitzgerald is a local boy made good. He started out as a Great Adventure cable car operator and has come back to serve as park president. But it’s not too late. He could still be a local hero and let a lot of loyal customers feel good about their connection to Great Adventure.

It’s a pretty simple matter of doing the right thing and not just talking about it.