By Virginia DiBianca
Helen Fenske, Pieter Prall, Lorraine Caruso, Kip Koehler, Joan Lisi and Diane Nelson are not well-known names overall. They didn’t make history books, discover a cure to a disease or entertain to great applause. In New Jersey, however they were the heroes who saved sections of a habitat with wildlife, vegetation and landscape from becoming just another piece of developed land.
Somewhere, there may be a park or a building or a tree with their name on it. Those unfamiliar with their campaign or are too young probably do not know why they received such an honor. Yet, if not for their unwavering efforts, the landscape of New Jersey would be deeply affected in both appearance and natural resources. If the forest, wildlife and waters could talk, they would say that if not for these individuals, the developer’s bulldozers would have taken their life and replaced them with traffic, pollution and noise. These individuals are citizens of New Jersey who represented nature and its surrounding community by challenging the corporations whose intent it was to build structures from concrete and steel. It started with them, but joined by others who helped save a part of New Jersey’s natural environment.
In the early 1960s, years before the first Earth Day brought environmental recognition to the nation, a New Jersey housewife named Helen Fenske ran a campaign from her kitchen table against a major government transportation agency. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Goliath to Fenske’s David, intended to build an airport on wetlands in Morris County. According to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge website, the swampland houses 244 species of birds and a wide variety of wildflowers and plants. Fenske’s passion and determination managed to successfully rally communities and political allies against the development. Her actions were inspirational to those that followed.
In another case study, as documented in the book, A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns by Jan Barry, Farny Highlands a 35,000 acre area in northern/central NJ is a primitive region that according to their website, has the largest continuous forest needed to preserve populations of endangered hawks, owls and rare songbirds. The streams of the region provide drinking water to one-third of New Jersey residents. In the 1980’s when the development craze was at a peak, real estate moguls wanted to see the Farny Highlands become a money-making, traffic infested, suburban development. Local residents such as Pieter Prall, a wildlife artist and author; Lorraine Caruso, biology professor and key member of several environmental organizations; Joan Lisi, credited with naming the project “Farny Highlands” (after the state’s first planner); and Diane Nelson banded together to stop the construction. According to David Epstein, executive director of the Morris Parks and Land Conservation agency, it was Nelson’s detailed booklet and map of how the undeveloped tracts intertwined with the watershed streams that fed the reservoirs that led to the state rejecting the project, protecting the water supply from pollution.
The beauty of these natural wonders would have all been lost if not for the passion and foresight of the people willing to stand up for the marshlands, swamps and waterways that sit quietly offering nature’s beauty. We are their voices. We must help them exist by defying the Goliaths, by making the public aware that the actions of developers and corporations have consequences that affected surrounding communities and endanger the existence of the animals, birds and the habitats that house them. These natural wonders are not easily replaced. Nature is a developer too. When nature is destroyed, it does not come back as easily as with putting up another building. The cost to replace nature is simply too high and takes too long.
For more information:
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, www.nynjtc.org/park/farny-highlands-subregion,
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/northeast/greatswamp,
A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns by Jan Barry