By Michele S. Byers
It’s hard to imagine New Jersey without its strong environmental bent and legacy. Over the past few decades, New Jersey has passed landmark regional planning laws, laws to protect wetlands and farmland, drinking water, air quality and funding for preserving open space, farmland and historic sites.
But 60 years ago – the year the New Jersey Conservation Foundation was founded – this state we’re in was a far different place and its future was uncertain.
Due to heavy industrial development from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, New Jersey in 1960 was home to widespread air and water pollution. Smog filled the air in New York City and surrounding urban areas, shrouding buildings in a brownish-yellow haze.
For decades, industrial chemicals had been dumped into rivers and buried in unregulated landfills, contaminating water and land. Raw sewage was often discharged into rivers and the ocean.
Federal and state regulations controlling air and water pollution were weak back in 1960. Still a decade away were the first Earth Day, the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and passage of federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
In rural areas of New Jersey and beyond, the harmful pesticide DDT was still used on farm crops.
The state’s population was six million, growing rapidly and fleeing from cities to the suburbs and countryside – raising public concern about over-development and a pending shortage of land for conservation and recreation.
The environmental movement had started to take root in the Garden State, as people became increasingly alarmed about the health impacts of dirty air and water.
Although the word “environment” was not yet part of the common vocabulary, New Jersey newspapers in 1960 were filled with stories of pollution and calls for action.
And citizens were taking action. The state’s first watershed organization, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (now known as the Watershed Institute) was founded in 1949 by citizens concerned about agricultural runoff, soil erosion and stream sedimentation. As time went on, the Pennington-based group embraced a broader clean water mission.
Using the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association as a model, citizens to the north founded the Upper Raritan Watershed Association and South Branch Watershed Association in 1959 to advocate for clean water and controls on development. Many other watershed groups followed.
As 1959 drew to a close, explosive news rocked residents in the rural communities surrounding the pristine Great Swamp in Morris and Somerset counties. A scoop in the Newark Evening News revealed that the powerful Port Authority had secretly hatched a plan to build an international “jetport” covering 10,000 acres of the swamp.
The Great Swamp Committee, which later became the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, formed in early 1960 to fight the airport proposal.
The committee came up with a secret plan of its own: quietly buying up enough land to convince the U.S. Department of the Interior to establish a national wildlife refuge in the Great Swamp. An affiliated group, the Jersey Jetport Site Association, fought the airport plan on the legislative front.
While the “Battle of the Great Swamp” was raging, other changes in the environmental landscape were afoot.
In 1961, worried about an increasing population and dwindling open space, the state Legislature proposed the first Green Acres bond issue to preserve conservation and recreation lands.
“I regret that we didn’t get to this program sooner,” said then-Assemblyman (and later state Senator) Raymond Bateman. “Already, New Jersey is the most urban state in the nation. As our available land is getting chopped up by development in the years to come, the job of proper park, recreation and conservation development will be prohibitive in cost – and perhaps even impossible.”
Green Acres land preservation turned out to be an extremely popular cause. The first $60 million ballot question was passed overwhelmingly by voters in November 1961, as was every other Green Acres question in the following six decades.
And the 1964 Farmland Assessment Act was key to preserving New Jersey’s farms, allowing agricultural land – and, eventually properly managed forest land – to be taxed at a lower rate than residential and commercial lands.
Another environmental milestone of the era was the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which detailed the decline of bird populations from the overuse of pesticides, especially DDT. The amount of DDT found in human tissue was also rising.
“Silent Spring” helped catalyze the environmental movement, but it would take until 1972 for DDT to be banned in the United States. It would take decades for affected bird populations in New Jersey, including bald eagles, to recover from the effects of DDT.
The “Battle of the Great Swamp” was won in 1964, when the U.S. Department of the Interior dedicated the first 3,000 acres of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
The Great Swamp Committee changed its name to the North Jersey Conservation Foundation in 1965, and to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in 1974, to reflect a broadened scope of work.
New Jersey is now a national leader in environmental protection and land preservation, but still faces many challenges, including federal rollbacks of critical laws protecting clean air, clean water, wildlife and public conservation lands.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org