By Lorraine Metz
While you hear about citizens groups forming campaigns and making strides to protect their cause, it’s often hard to imagine how the group got started and became so capable. The people involved in such campaigns as The Great Swamp Campaign showed how one person can actually make a difference. Living in America, the land of the free, we’re often told that we can achieve whatever we set out to do; but going through life it seems farfetched to consider that you are capable of such a task.
It’s always great to know people in high places, but it’s even better to learn the story of a typical person who reaches and grabs at the stars. In 1961 Helen Fenske, a housewife, helped lead the Great Swamp Campaign and was named secretary. Not a wealthy woman, Fenske was still determined. The controversy of the Port Authority plan for building an airport on the swamp forced her and her neighbors to take action on the beautiful land surrounding their homes.
With great determination they set up meetings, not in an office, but in Fenske’s kitchen. I think this is one of the greatest aspects of the story. Despite a lack of funds they were able to draw attention from other groups and form a large audience with a shared concern. They worked hard and were able to get noticed by New Jersey lawmakers and eventually the DEP and EPA. While Fenske’s involvement started because of the threat to her neighborhood, she stepped up and later took part in jobs for both the DEP and EPA, concerned for the well being of the environment everywhere.
From her experience, she was able to realize that she could help others. With a gain in credentials she was able to help others with their organizations and campaigns to save and salvage the environment.
The Farny Highlands project was also helped greatly by a woman who resided in the area. As a Morris County Park Commissioner she took her time researching and mapping the area so that the public could see the area including the wetlands and underground aquifers. Fenske discussed this saying, “Diane Nelson pulled together the most wonderful loose-leaf booklet and maps. No one had ever pulled it all together. She gave it to everyone in DEP who might have anything to do with Farny. What the state saw was that this was 30 percent of the state’s water supply” in North Jersey. “The state saw its interest was to protect the water supply.”
These victories achieved by citizens is both encouraging and phenomenal. For those who doubt their abilities and doubt that one person can make a difference, these stories can change their attitudes. It’s inspiring to hear and watch such campaigns evolve and achieve. Without groups and people with strong opinions New Jersey could have lost land that we now cherish. Small steps and big ideas can help more than you’d think.