By Ben Reuter
The Weis Ecology Center in Ringwood, New Jersey has been an amazing wildlife learning center for thousands of children and adults. But abruptly, as of December 31, the center closed its doors.
The Ecology Center is a 100-acre area in the forests of Ringwood off Snake Den Road and has been under the wing of the New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS) in recent years. The reasons behind the closing are related to financial shortages. School-funded programs have not been sufficient in recent years to help pay the bills. The buildings on site date back to the 1930’s and are in dire need of rehabilitation. And economic pressure on the NJAS caused the need for downsizing of their various operations, which included the Weis Ecology Center.
The president of the NJAS, Eric Stiles, said he is very regretful about the closing of Weis and implored residents to understand the need for the NJAS to save money and cut some programs.
“This isn’t a reflection on the hard work done by the staff and the volunteers. We’ve had a great relationship with the Ringwood community, but we have to make some hard decisions in this economy,” Siles said.
In 2010, NJAS closed Weis during the winter months in order to save money in heating costs. Even with the savings, the center has been operating at a deficit for the past 15 years, at a cost on average of $30,000-$60,000 each year.
I remember going to Weis with different educational programs through my Cub Scout Troup as well as various school functions. I remember following the many trails through the woods as well as learning about the wildlife that thrives in the forests around Weis in my childhood and I still frequent the area in search of connecting with the wildlife.
The many trails that link up with the center’s land are part of the Norvin Green State Forest and connect with regional trails that provide numerous stunning viewpoints of the Wanaque Reservoir and Appalachian ridges of the New Jersey Highlands.
Along nearby trails are two old iron mines. The Roomy Mine is open and you are able to enter the cave and experience what the iron miners’ lives were like in the dark hole. Blue Mine is submerged by water from the Blue Mine Brook, which flows through the Norvin Green State Forest into the Wanaque Reservoir through lush stream banks and waterfalls.
The education gained through the experiences I have had here will forever stick with me as well as the thousands of other people who have explored through these woods.
The closing of the Weis Ecology Center is not the first of its kind for the area. Before the Weis Ecology Center existed, the area was under another name, Camp Midvale, which opened in 1921. In 1935 a group of nature enthusiasts called Nature Friends built an Olympic sized, stream fed pool, the Highlands Natural Pool. The pool became part of Weis and its environmental learning center when the camp was bought by Walter and May Weis in 1974, and Weis Ecology Center was born.
Highlands Pool Closed by Weis, Reopened by Community Group
In 1994 there were economic problems at the Ecology Center which forced the closing of the Highlands Pool. However, in 1995 residents in the surrounding community of Ringwood and Wanaque offered to take it upon themselves to reopen the pool. The Community Association of the Highlands Inc. was formed to maintain the Highlands Natural Pool. The pool is still under the control of the local community association and is able to run on seasonal memberships and donations.
The question arises: Will the Weis Ecology Center become a community run program just as happened with the Highlands Pool?
On January 14, there was a public meeting in Ringwood to address the situation at Weis. Many people had written letters and called NJAS President Eric Stiles to voice their opinion not to close the center. Stiles explained that it is not possible for the NJAS to open the center without a bottom line of $40,000 and that he wishes he could change what has happened.
“Weis is so important to so many wonderful people, but even if we were to secure the funds necessary to operate this year, plus the shortfall for next year, and then we were to close at the end of this season, I think people would be off put by that,” Stiles said.
He also hinted at the possibility that if someone could foot the bill he would be able to open the center back up. “We’re always open to angels,” he said.
New Campaign to Reopen Ecology Center
With the help of the Passaic River Coalition and support of community members, there is hope the center will reopen. Michael Reinhart, Environmental Specialist at Passaic River Coalition, sent out a public message that, “The Passaic River Coalition is interested in finding ways to keep the Weis Ecology Center open and available to the public” and “Once we have a good understanding of how much support is available, we will assess our options.”
The Passaic River Coalition has preserved 1,600 acres of open space land in New Jersey since the Passaic River Coalition Land Trust was created in 1993. Now they’re looking into adding the acres of Weis Ecology Center to that number.
So the latest fight to save Weis is under way! To join with the Passaic River Coalition (PRC) and local community to save the Weis Ecology Center, hop on the mailing list for updates and information by contacting PRCWeis@gmail.com.
Ben Reuter is a junior at Ramapo College of New Jersey majoring in Communications: Writing with a minor in Environmental Studies. He is also an avid hiker and outdoorsman of the New Jersey Highlands Region.
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