By Courtney Leiva
For as long as I can remember I have always rooted for the underdog, so when reading the chapter about the Great Swamp campaign in A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns I was pulling for the efforts of housewife Helen Fenske and the North American Wildlife Organization in protecting a 75,000-acre Great Swamp in Morris County from becoming a site of an airport. For far too long, environmental legislation and decisions have been made without the consent of the people, especially the people living in areas where corporations and companies plan to develop and industrialize. In the cases outlined in the reading, it was more than exhilarating to learn that the efforts of civic organizations and the power of the people triumphed and made a difference in environmental legislation and got some form of environmental justice.
But with great success also comes hard work. Despite the organization’s lack of funds or meeting space (many meetings were held in the corner of Fenske’s kitchen), she spent countless amount of time juggling telephone calls and attending meetings to spark other conservation campaigns.
Fenske was also the founder and executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, as well being hired by the Ford Foundation to research environmental activism in other states. Fenske’s often said the key to the campaign’s success was publicizing the cause, the involvement of politicians, and power brokers, protest in the media, as well as getting the support of like minded people and organizations. But most importantly, campaigns should really look into the talent and imagination of a community as these aspects will often draw about new and good ideas.
50 years later, Fenske and her efforts are now being honored by the creation of the Helen C. Fenske Visitor Center at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Basking Ridge, N.J., which opened in 2009.
In the wake of the Great Swamp campaign, activists like Pieter Prall campaigned against development plans in Morris County to save the Farny Highlands. But like Fenske’s efforts, this campaign succeeded without lots of money or big news coverage. Instead, they relied on reaching out to neighbors, which led to reaching out to regional conservation groups, to local officials, the county and finally federal officials. The campaign also sought out environmentalist Helen Fenske to help further their cause.
Like the other two cases in the chapter, saving the Sterling Forest campaign- whose ultimate goals were to preserve terrain along the New York-New Jersey border, was met with some struggles. However, by bringing together environmental groups, this strengthened the movement.
With hard work and determination, it is great to see that the efforts of these civic groups have paid off in the long run and have made a difference. The lessons that cases like these prove is that there is still hope for some environmental justice in this world where everything is becoming industrialized.