David versus Goliath: conservation of land and of species-Part I

As ecologists discussing our science we often take for granted the most essential part of our research, you need the land to study the organisms. Now this may seem blatantly obvious and it probably is, but how often do you think about how the land you love, work, and play in came to be? In many cases people take for granted open space because to them it has always existed. This is a story about a place that is dear to me, a place that almost wasn’t, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Sign Tree (h)

Keep out! This maple tree stands as a sentinel in the forest of Great Swamp.

As a kid who liked to play in the mud and catch frogs it was a blessing growing up next to a National Wildlife Refuge. I remembering being told from a very young age how lucky I was because “you know, this place was almost an airport.” For years this fact stuck with me but it wasn’t until I was grown that I could appreciate it fully.

It took an Act of Congress to establish the refuge in the 1960s but that is how all National Wildlife Refuges are born, what is more remarkable is the story of what happened before Congress established the refuge. In the winter of 1959 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced they would build a large airport within the heart of the swamp. This was to supplement Newark Airport and was to be the largest jetport in the New York metropolitan area, about 10,000 acres in total.

A pamphlet warning about what areas would be affected by the jetport.


At the time it was not uncommon to justify filling in wetlands, as the national attitude towards swamps, marshes and the like was that they were unproductive wastelands. Of course, we now know that wetlands are considered to be the kidneys of any healthy ecosystem, filtering out sediment and waste, cleaning the water, and hosting an abundance and variety of organisms.

Above Pool 2

The heart of the swamp. This is where the proposed jetport would have been.      

However, the announcement did not go unnoticed and the outcry was enormous. By the spring of 1960 a grassroots effort was established to fight the plans of the Port Authority. At the head of the fight was the Great Swamp Committee, a group of local citizens led by Helen Fenske. Their job was to educate people about the environmental implications of the jetport and how valuable the swamp was. Fenske advocated for the land to become a National Wildlife Refuge as a means of permanently protecting it.


The fight to save the swamp!


By the fall of 1960, families living in the area donated around 1,000 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior, as part of a gift from a local entrepreneur and resident, Marcellus Hartley Dodge. Within less than a year the advocacy of local citizens to preserve this treasure led to the Act of Congress establishing Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Helen Fenske at the dedication of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.


By 1964 the refuge was officially dedicated by the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and had grown from the original 1,000 acres to 2,600 acres through the efforts of the Great Swamp Committee. By 1966 it was declared a National Natural Landmark and by 1968 enough land was acquired to qualify it as a wilderness area, making it the first wilderness area in the Department of the Interior. This was the end of the Port Authority’s plans of a jetport.


The Wilderness Area dedicated to Marcellus Hartley Dodge.


Flash ahead to the fall of 2014, at the Helen C. Fenske Visitors Center where the Great Swamp celebrated 50 years as a refuge. They also celebrated 50 years since the inception of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which helped protect the swamp from development by establishing a wilderness area that was dedicated to Marcellus Hartley Dodge who originally set aside the land. Today the refuge is approximately 7,800 acres, just shy of the 10,000 acres originally proposed for the jetport. It is home to many plants and animals, some of which are threatened and endangered species. People today are just as passionate about protecting the swamp as they were 50 years ago. Of course, the swamp is just one story of many stories of land conservation. As conscientious scientists and citizens the fight is never over. The need to protect land and species is just as important now as it was then but what are we losing when we can’t protect either?

Part II-the species, to be continued in my next post (in 5 weeks or so).


Through grassroots efforts the swamp is preserved but there are many places that still need our help.