By Deanna Dunsmuir
Jan Barry’s rendition of the “Great Swamp Campaign” in A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns describes the citizen-fueled effort to save the marshland from becoming bulldozed by Port Authority to create a new airport. As the author illustrates, the campaign was a collective effort that was made possible through persistence and trial and error. Yet, despite the activists’ unfamiliarity with the campaigning process, learning along the way, as well as making connections, proved to be a winning feat that provides lessons for others.
One of the interesting elements of the Great Swamp campaign was the story of Helen Fenske, who resided on the outskirts of the marshland. As a housewife, Fenske provided her kitchen as a headquarters for the Great Swamp Committee of the North American Wildlife Foundation, a committee formed by hundreds of volunteers. As Fenske’s knowledge of grassroots campaigning grew, so did her value as an environmental representative. The once-housewife has since served as a special assistant to New Jersey’s first environmental commissioner and as acting DEP commissioner herself, Barry stated.
The tale of such a surprising victory of the citizens over the big Port Authority sets an example to the public, but it also does something more. After the Great Swamp was saved, parks were constructed in the area by surrounding towns, municipal environmental committees were formed, and public awareness of the destruction of environmentally valuable land was raised. Finally, the expertise that the citizen’s gained, such as how to organize and effectively achieve a goal, can now be passed on to someone who wants to make a difference.
Another surprising factor of the 1960’s grassroots victory was that it was achieved before the public paid much attention to environmental issues. As Barry points out, the campaign was before the first Earth Day. Reading stories such as these remind me that shaping the public agenda begins with citizens, not government. It is the people that vote and therefore the people that must decide what issues a candidate should support. As jobs, family life, school work and other responsibilities take the center stage in most people’s lives, it becomes clear how dangerous it is to not stop and notice surroundings.
After reading about the Great Swamp, I decided to educate myself on environmental issues in my own town of Jefferson, New Jersey. It took little research to find that a current debate is the removal of trapa natans (water chestnuts) from Lake Hopatcong. The plant spreads quickly as “One acre of water chestnut can produce enough seeds to cover 100 acres the following year,” the Lake Hopatcong Commission website says. The commission states that the plant will soon engulf the lake and therefore prohibit swimming, boating and fishing.
The information forced me to wonder: is the plant naturally growing along the shoreline or is it happening as an effect of increasing development? How do they plan to remove the plant and its seeds? Will they use chemicals? Am I the only one wondering these questions? The Great Swamp indeed left me with a greater sense of responsibility.