Family, friends and colleagues unveil sign for Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve

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EDISON – Family, friends and colleagues of Peter J. Barnes III gathered for the official unveiling of a sign renaming the former Dismal Swamp Conservation Area to the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve.

Barnes, who passed away at age 64 in February after a brief battle with cancer, was instrumental in preserving hundreds of acres of land in the conservation area.

In August, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation renaming the Dismal Swamp and Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission as the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve and the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preservation Committee, respectively.

Middlesex County Commissioner Charles Tomaro, a longtime friend of Barnes, organized the sign unveiling on Oct. 30. The 8-foot by 5-foot sign bearing Barnes’s image sits at the entrance of the wildlife refuge’s Songbird Trail at the corner of Nevsky Street and Fleet Avenue.

Ken Barnes shared unique anecdotes about his dad – from his obsession with pizza to his sweet tooth and hidden supply of candy in his various offices across the state to his borderline obsessive compulsive disorder about picking up twigs, sticks and branches off his lawn.

The younger Barnes told the crowd he received an email in August from Bina Desai, former executive first assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County and former assistant prosecutor with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. She was sworn in as a superior court judge and had settled into his father’s former chambers.

“While tidying up a bit, she had found three of dad’s books that we may want,” he recalled.

The books included a 2014 legislative manual from when the elder Barnes first became a senator, a book called “Word Power Made Easy,” and a Bible given to him by John and Sherie Woody, longtime family friends of the Barnes family.

“I flipped to the last page dad had bookmarked and about halfway through on the very last page he circled just one passage, Sirach 6:14: ‘Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure,’ ” he said, adding his dad found “the treasure of all treasures” with the many family and friends he had in his life.

“Dad’s legacy is cemented by selfless deeds, unconditional loyalty and devoted heart rendering, gritty time consuming, hard to maintain true friendships,” he said. “Dad was a hard worker, a real put your nose to the grindstone and get stuff done type of guy, the hardest worker I have ever met, for he was not a self-made man … he never quit anything.”

Ken Barnes said those who considered his father a friend learned the true meaning of friendship.

He said through his dad’s perseverance, the preservation of the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve would not have been accomplished without the help of Tomaro, Bob Spiegel, founder of the nonprofit organization Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), Walter Stochel, a member of the Edison Open Space Committee, and countless others.

Many dignitaries and former dignitaries from across Middlesex County attended and spoke during the ceremony. Barnes’s extended family sat in the front row, which included his mother Barbara, sisters Sheila and Kelly, his wife Catherine and his other two children Meg and Jack. Barnes’s sister-in-law read a poem dedicated to her brother-in-law. She noted her brother-in-law was well-versed in poetry.

After the ceremony, Stochel led a walk into the wildlife preserve.

Barnes was a lifelong Edison resident and graduated from John P. Stevens High School in 1974. After succeeding his father, Peter Barnes II, in the New Jersey General Assembly in 2007, he was elected to State Senate in 2013, and in 2016, was nominated and confirmed to the New Jersey Superior Court.

The Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve is the largest contiguous wetlands in northern Middlesex County. The 1,250-acre preserve is one of the last remaining viable wetland ecosystems in highly urbanized Central New Jersey. Known as the “Everglades of Central New Jersey,” the preserve spans portions of Edison, Metuchen and South Plainfield, according to its website.

The preserve is designated “priority wetlands” by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and provides much needed habitat for an estimated 175 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, and 25 species of amphibians and reptiles. The preserve also acts as a floodplain for the Bound Brook and its headwaters. Its plant life absorbs excess water and helps to filter out impurities before they empty into the Raritan River Watershed, according to the website.

With the advocacy of EWA and local citizens, Edison preserved 270 acres of wetland and forest to create the conservation area. EWA purchased the Triple C Ranch, a 5.27-acre property in the heart of the conservation area in 2001. Previously owned by Christopher C. Christensen, the ranch is one of the last remaining farms in northern Middlesex County.

Tomaro said they well-exceeded the donation campaign for the sign, which included a donation from his former classmate Nancy Shevell, wife of Paul McCartney. He said the surplus of donations will be offered as an annual memorial scholarship for a student at J.P. Stevens High School, whose future studies include environment and climate change.