By John Clancey
Not many people think wildlife when they think New Jersey. If they do, then odds are they’re really thinking about of the average driver cruising up and down the Garden State Parkway. However, contrary to popular belief, New Jersey is actually home to one of the most extraordinarily diverse and beautiful environments the world over.
In recent centuries, New Jersey has undergone an industrial expansion seldom seen in the quainter regions of the world. From Cape May to the Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey has grown into a suburban powerhouse that shows little sign of stopping. During expansions of this type, it’s seldom wondered what adverse effects this “cultural terraforming” can have on an already established environment. Fortunately, this was not the case for the Great Swamp.
When Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced they were to build a fourth major airport roughly twenty miles outside Newark, they were met with some the most resourceful and dedicated citizens to ever organize a grassroots campaign. For five years, these eco-defenders raised over four million dollars and enlisted the help of more than four hundred other civic organizations across the country. All of it to protect a major marshland that had historically defined the region they called home.
Behind this landmark civil campaign was a group of determined citizens who took it upon themselves to inform their towns and rally their neighbors. Together, they fought back and after five years, the marshlands had been declared a National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Secretary of the interior Stewart L. Udall attended the dedication and commended the efforts of the local residents. “We applaud not the action by the federal government, but disciplined, tough-minded action by many voluntary citizen groups,” noted Udall. Soon after, citizens convinced nearby Morris and Somerset counties to set up parks along the wetlands border, further cementing the refuge into itself.
One of the major players behind this civil campaign was local housewife Helen Fenske. Having turned her kitchen into a campaign center, she organized mall exhibits, newsletters, and campaign funds with little more than a mailing list and a parade of volunteers. She notes the volunteers as the key to a successful grassroots campaign. “Too often in this field you have people who want all the credit. One of the things that emerged from the Great Swamp was not to let any one person take the credit. Because there are so many” said Fenske.
The grassroots campaign that emerged from the Great Swamp is more than just a special interest group. They are an organized, determined, and capable shinning inspiration to anyone looking to make a difference. They saw something wrong happening to their environment and took action. In this, they are a picturesque example for every citizen looking to make their world better. Because of their actions, generations to come will be able to experience the beauty of the Great Swamp first hand, forever having proof that New Jersey really is the garden state.