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Bill to rename Dismal Swamp Conservation Area in honor of legislator is headed to governor

A bill to rename the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area and a commission to oversee its regulation in honor of the late Peter J. Barnes III is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk to be signed into law.

The legislation, which Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. and Assemblymen Robert Karabinchak and Sterley Stanley sponsored, unanimously passed the full Senate on June 30, days after the full Assembly approved the measure, according to information provided by Diegnan.

The three Democratic lawmakers represent New Jersey’s 18th legislative district, which Barnes served for a decade.

A former state senator and assemblyman who also served as a New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Barnes’ impact was as vast as the 660-acre Dismal Swamp, and as varied as the nearly 200 species of birds that have inhabited the natural oasis, Diegnan said in the statement.

Among the contributions Barnes made during his tenure as a state lawmaker and environmental activist was to preserve the Dismal Swamp.

“Pete Barnes was successful in so many areas, but his work to preserve open space and protect the Dismal Swamp were crowning achievements,” Diegnan said in the statement. “This renaming ensures that his efforts in these areas are remembered and honored for generations to come.”

The Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preservation Commission – currently known as the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission, which Barnes established through legislation in 2008 – would continue to provide comprehensive regulatory authority and regional planning for the Dismal Swamp after it’s renamed the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve.

“When Peter Barnes was in the Assembly, he was instrumental in preserving the Dismal Swamp,” said Karabinchak, noting the area spans Metuchen, South Plainfield, and Barnes’ native Edison. “Renaming the largest natural area remaining in northern Middlesex County is a merited tribute to his effort and dedication toward protecting the land.”

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) also sponsored the legislation.

“Peter fought hard to ensure the ‘Everglades of Central Jersey’ were protected, and that the wildlife there was able to thrive,” Coughlin said in the statement. “He would often go door to door to spread awareness about the state park. Dedicating the conservation to Peter is a way to honor his advocacy and dedication toward safeguarding such a spectacular place in New Jersey.”

Barnes was passionate about the Dismal Swamp, which holds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Federal Priority Wetlands status.

“Through his actions, Peter was able to protect hundreds of birds and dozens of endangered species,” Stanley said in the statement. “Naming the conservation area after Peter is a wonderful way to honor and recognize his dedication to Middlesex County.”

The Dismal Swamp represents one of the last remaining wetland ecosystems in a highly urbanized environment of the state. The area has been home to more than 175 different bird species, including the threatened and endangered grasshopper sparrow and yellow-crowned night heron. Twenty-five mammals and more than a dozen reptile and amphibian species have been sighted in the Dismal Swamp, while archeological digs in the area have uncovered at least five significant archeological sites, including one more than 10,000 years old, according to the statement.

“The Dismal Swamp preservation area would not be the wonderful place it is except for Pete’s dedication and focus,” Diegnan said in the statement. “Every time someone celebrates the beauty of nature by walking the preserve, they will be celebrating what Pete Barnes was all about. Pete Barnes celebrated life. His goal was always to make things better.”

Barnes served the General Assembly for seven years and the State Senate for three years before being sworn in as a Superior Court Judge in Middlesex County in 2016.

He died suddenly at the age of 64 on Feb. 22.

“Pete Barnes left us far too soon, and I can think of no better way to honor his life and legacy than this renaming,” Sweeney said in the statement. “Because of his advocacy, 660 acres of land are preserved. More importantly, hundreds of birds and dozens of other endangered species have protection. With this renaming, New Jerseyans, particularly residents of Middlesex County, will forever remember the incredible work of Pete Barnes.”

Murphy described Barnes – a lifelong Edison resident who worked to preserve open space while serving on the township’s planning board and council – “a workhorse, not a show horse.”

“The things that made him a good legislator and beloved colleague also made him a model judge in our Superior Courts for the past nearly five years,” Murphy said, according to the statement. “He was, simply put, a good man who wanted to see good things come from his work.”

During his time in Trenton, Barnes advocated for a commission to better control development at the Jersey Shore. He worked with the Attorney General’s office for increased police oversight and on a package of bills to better protect victims of sexual assault, according to the statement.

In a statement at the time of Barnes’ passing, Jeff Tittel, recently retired director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called Barnes a champion for the environment.

“As an assemblyman and senator, he was a leader when it came to fighting climate change, cleaning up toxic sites, and more,” Tittel said, according to the statement. “He pushed for a Coastal Commission, worked on the Global Warming Response Act and more.

“As you drive around Middlesex County and see open space, clean air, and clean water, that is part of Peter’s legacy.

“He dedicated his life to make New Jersey a better place,” Tittel said.

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