Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How the Great Swamp Became a Wildlife Refuge

Great Swamp NWR is currently one of the top birding destinations in central New Jersey. Its borders contain the marshes, swamps, woodland, and meadows that the Passaic River as it winds its way through Morris and Somerset counties. I personally have seen 119 species of birds there; the refuge list stands at 244.

But the Great Swamp could have been an airport rather than a wildlife refuge, if the Port Authority had not met with resistance from the residents of surrounding towns.

The postwar years were an era of unprecedented ground travel, too. The Federal Highway Act of Dwight Eisenhower was finally funding plans for interstate highways that had been on the drawing boards for years.

Two of these in New Jersey were Routes 78 and 287.

They would intersect not far from the Great Swamp, making the new airport convenient for New Yorkers and Jerseyans, as well as people from eastern Pennsylvania. The Port Authority thought the swamp was perfect for other reasons, too.

It already was flat -- and sparsely populated. The small towns around it -- the Chathams, Bernards Township, Madison, Harding -- probably couldn't raise much political opposition and would welcome the influx of jobs and industry....

The late Helen Fenske, a self-described Green Village housewife, began to put together a coalition of fundraising volunteers to buy up the land and deed it to the U.S. Department of the Interior for a nature preserve. This was 1960, decades before the discovery that a rare salamander could stop a huge development in its tracks....

They enlisted the help of Marcellus Hartley Dodge and his wife, Geraldine, a legend among animal lovers. With Dodge startup money, wealth built from Remington firearms, the group began to purchase tracts of Great Swamp land. But they also raised money in small donations from regular people.

By 1960, they had 1,000 acres. By 1964, they had more than 3,000, which met federal requirements to create a wildlife refuge.

On May 29, 1964, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge became the first federally designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi.
It is now difficult to picture that area with an airport in the middle of the swamp. I am certainly glad that plan did not come to fruition.

(link via)