Keynote Address to the Tenth Anniversary Celebration
June 24, 2005
Leonard W. Hamilton, Ph.D. *
The Early Years
The Great Swamp has already been lost once: The region had been thoughtfully developed with vegetable farms and small villages that provided a sustainable lifestyle for the residents. Then, in the summer of 1708, a group of British investors negotiated a vaguely worded contract to purchase the land. The Lenape Indians very likely thought that they were selling hunting and fishing rights rather than the land itself—actual ownership of land was a foreign concept.
European settlers began to move in to farm the land and start local businesses. Our familiar villages (Green Village, New Vernon, Basking Ridge, Bernardsville, Meyersville, Stirling, and Millington) and the historic roads between them began to appear. In 1763, Jacob High, the teenage son of one of these first farmers, built the house in Meyersville where my wife and I live.
But even these simple farming communities asked more from the land than it was able to give. The magnificent mature trees of the Great Swamp were harvested for lumber, pitch, and other forest products. Large tracts of land were clear-cut to make way for the fields and pastures that characterized the European style of farming. With each clearing, the loss of evapotranspiration brought the water table closer to the surface and drainage became more and more a problem.
Ironically, poor land use had served as a limiting factor and the Great Swamp retained its semi-rural character with sleepy historic villages while the upland areas surrounding it fell prey to urban development and suburban sprawl. The Great Swamp had not been saved, but it had been spared.
The Jetport Years
On December 3, 1959, newspaper headlines screamed out the plans to build a jetport in the swamp. In my opinion, this was the best thing that ever happened to the Great Swamp. In the absence of this call to action, we very likely would have seen the Great Swamp die bit by bit as roadways, housing developments, and commercial operations moved in. But the jetport proposal galavanized the local citizenry into a protest mode the likes of which have probably never been paralleled before or since. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority was a huge force with only vaguely defined limits to their powers. They always got what they wanted…. Well, almost always.
I want to talk to you today about a century-long battle to save the Great Swamp. You may be thinking that it has only been about 45 years. But we are not yet finished. The battle goes on.
The first portion of the battle is laid out in great detail by Cam Cavanaugh’s book, Saving the Great Swamp. I can only skim the surface of these events today. The poor Port Authority must have felt like some hapless hiker who wandered unprotected into the Great Swamp during mosquito season. They were being attacked from all sides by the group known as the Jersey Jetport Site Association (JJSA):
Ultimately, the financial backing of Hartley Dodge, the largesse of countless citizens, and the cooperation of landowners put together a 1,000-acre parcel of land that was donated to the Department of Interior in 1960—it was right in the middle of the proposed runway. Then in 1961, the USFWS established a field office in Meyersville. In 1964, Secretary Stuart Udall dedicated 2,600 acres as the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge calling it a national showcase of ecological diversity. The Port Authority was not impressed, claiming essentially that they could fly around the refuge—the Morris County site was still #1. It was not until September 1968 when President Johnson designated a portion of the Great Swamp as a wilderness area that the jetport had finally been blocked.
- On the political front, Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen had aligned all of the region’s elected officials in opposition to the jetport.
- On the legal front, the JJSA pointed out that the Port Authority was not all-powerful. Before the PA could develop the jetport, it would need (a) approval for the project, (b) extension of its boundaries to Morris County, (c) the right to condemn in Morris County, and (d) the authority to condemn municipally owned land. All these would have to be approved by the NJ legislature, the NJ governor, and concurred by NY.
- On the public relations front, they hired real estate developer Bill Smith for $1,000 per month to lead the group, they created lines of communication with newspapers, they sent out mailings and public speakers, and they got Helen Fenske involved. Soon, nobody didn’t know about the jetport and the Great Swamp!
- On the fundraising front, the PA was pitted against a well-heeled enemy whose philanthropic spirit ran as deep as their pockets. Marcellus Hartley Dodge put his money where it was needed, giving the PR groups a firm foundation for fundraising. Sometimes the money poured in, sometimes it trickled in, but it always kept coming in.
- On the technical front, the JJSA contracted reports of its own to challenge the need for an airport, the siting of the airport, and the accuracy of the PA’s numbers. They buried the PA’s data with their own data.
- But, the conservation front was the golden thread that ran through all of the opposition. Many of the actions of the JJSA could be painted as NIMBYism (not in my backyard), but conservation was a positive goal, and once the local citizenry got caught up in the opposition to the jetport, the conservation element grew dramatically
The Great Swamp had been saved! Or had it?
The Regulatory Years
The collective sigh of relief after blocking the jetport was destined to be short-lived. Although the refuge and wilderness area comprised a protected island in the basin of the Great Swamp, our human activities on the adjacent hillsides were sending shockwaves through the delicate ecosystem. As part of the process of gaining wilderness area status, we had to document the ecological diversity, show that the streams were running clean, and promise to preserve this condition. But within a few years, some of our streams were already becoming fouled. Shame on us!
The Great Swamp Watershed Association began to expand its activities, focusing on stormwater. When Chatham introduced a plan to expand its wastewater treatment plant, it was not exactly a jetport proposal, but it did serve as a rallying point for a renewed, coordinated effort to protect the Great Swamp.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Energy established the Great Swamp Watershed Advisory Committee (GSWAC) to study the impact of the proposed expansion. Some 30-odd stakeholders came to the table, including representatives from the surrounding towns and counties, developers and builders, and environmental groups. Candy Ashmun chaired the committee, maintaining a daunting schedule of monthly meetings for more than three years. The final report documented the harmful effects of stormwater on the Great Swamp and provided a simple recipe for the cure: Manage stormwater in a way that results in no net increase in either pollution or the volume of stormwater that leaves the site after development. We dubbed it the “no-net ordinance.”
The environmental penalties of poor stormwater management are so severe, the benefits to the developer so limited, and the remedy so obvious that I could not understand why people did not just do it! What was all the fuss about?
Representative Richard Bagger took the no-net stormwater recommendations to Trenton, proposing legislation that would require better stormwater management within the Great Swamp watershed. The “Bagger Bill” floundered in Trenton largely because our local municipalities saw it as a threat to home rule and did not want another layer of bureaucracy to impede their development process.
As everything seemed about to be lost, Morris 2000 stepped forward and helped to establish the Ten Towns Committee in 1995, an intermunicipal agreement among the ten towns that hold land within the Great Swamp. This group was formed with the idea that they could “do it themselves.” I was skeptical. I was pretty much wrong.
The Ten Towns Committee hit the ground running and accomplished things that never would have been done by municipalities acting alone:
Finally, Phase II of the Federal Clean Water Act provided the necessary force to move us forward. NJDEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell crafted the comprehensive new Statewide Stormwater Regulations that include most of the language of the GSWAC recommendation, the Bagger Bill, and the Ten Towns model ordinance. After the better part of two decades, good stormwater management is now the law of the land.
- Within two years, a watershed management plan had been developed and was approved by all ten member towns.
- Detailed stream corridor analyses have been completed for four of the five streams in the Great Swamp.
- Water Quality monitoring stations have been placed in each of the five feeder streams and an annual macroinvertebrate inventory is conducted.
- Demonstration projects showing best management practices have been constructed in several locations within the watershed. Our most ambitious project, currently underway, is to clean up the headwaters of Loantaka Brook, our most degraded stream. We already have funding to begin some stream corridor improvement in Morris Township and a $250-thousand grant from the EPA will pay for the planning costs. By the time Loantaka runs clean again, this project will probably cost several million dollars and will serve at once to demonstrate the methods of repairing a stream and the tremendous cost of not doing things right in the first place.
- Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Ten Towns Committee has been the development of a set of model ordinances for better stormwater management. Over the course of a few years, most of our member towns adopted most of the important provision of these ordinances. Ironically, the cornerstone of these ordinances, our stormwater ordinance was stopped in its tracks by the State of New Jersey: The New Jersey Residential Site Improvement Standards prohibited municipalities from establishing stormwater standards that were more strict than the State regulations. Stalemate.
The Great Swamp is safe at last! Or is it?
The Future Years
The new stormwater regulations are not a call to complacency. The regulations are already under attack by municipal officials who view the requirements as nonfunded mandates. Engineers will claim it can’t be done and developers will claim it is too expensive. These strong, new stormwater regulations will only prevail until they are tampered with.
The Great Swamp will never be fully protected by what happens in Town Hall, the Statehouse, or the Halls of Congress. The Great Swamp and what remains of our natural heritage will be secure only when the majority of our citizenry see themselves as part of the natural heritage and engage in daily acts of stewardship to preserve their place within the natural world.
The GSNWR provides us with a tangible symbol of our commitment to stewardship. And if we are to sustain our stewardship for another 50 years, we need to strengthen our shared resolve to protect the natural heritage left by our ancestors and preserve it into the future for our children. Stuart Udall said it best:
“We can misuse the land and diminish the usefulness of resources, or we can create a world in which physical affluence and affluence of the spirit go hand in hand. If enough people care enough about the world outside their door…, communities will flourish, and this generation can proudly put its signature on the land.” (Benefits of Open Space, Great Swamp Watershed Association)
Whether or not the Great Swamp will be this generation’s proud signature depends on what happens in our heads. And a good place for swamp dwellers to start would be to rekindle our love for rain. Not the kind of rain that falls on street and run downs the gutter, but the kind of rain that falls on the carpet of a forest and feeds a quiet stream. Stormwater should be viewed as a valuable natural resource rather than a problem to be solved. We must learn to be deeply offended when our precious rainwater is flushed down a storm pipe in the same way that we flush our toilets. We need to stand before our governing bodies, our municipal boards, our developers, and our legislators and say, “Hey! What are you doing with my water?! Put it back in the ground where it belongs!”
When stewardship becomes a way of life for each of us, our laws will be safe from tampering, the Great Swamp will be safe from us, and our children will inherit a natural treasure.
* Dr. Hamilton has been a member of the Ten Towns Great Swamp Watershed Committee since its creation, and was the Committee's Chair from 2002-2005. He stepped down from that position coincident with the Tenth Anniversary Celebration.