A Highlands Haven for Nature Studies Faces an Uncertain Fate

From Great Depression to pandemic, the New Jersey School of Conservation has taught multiple generations to love the woods
Credit: NJSOC
Sixth graders from the Norwood public school took part in three days of outdoor activities and environmental classes at the School of Conservation in summer 2019.

For 71 years, teachers and students have come to a remote 240-acre tract in northwest New Jersey to study pollution, climate change, and conservation at an upland forest research station.

But the New Jersey School of Conservation in Stokes State Forest, the oldest and largest environmental field center in the nation, could shutter permanently by the end of June, a casualty of the state’s precarious fiscal straits during the pandemic and other factors.

Montclair State University, the overseer of the school since 1981, is essentially returning the property to the state Department of Environmental of Protection, saying it can longer afford to maintain the school, citing cuts in state aid to the university.

In a letter to the DEP, Susan Cole, president of Montclair wrote that those cuts, “in light of the enormous additional expenses incurred by the coronavirus pandemic, now no longer makes support of the school challenging; it makes it untenable.’’

The last state appropriation to the school was in fiscal year 2010 when the Legislature provided approximately $1 million. Since then, the university in Essex County continued to fund the school out of ever-diminishing appropriations of general funds, Cole wrote.

The potential closure is spurring a last-ditch effort to keep the school afloat, if only a stopgap fix until a new permanent source of funding can be found to rescue it.

“There’s no other way to put it, we’re in shock,’’ said Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation. “But we’re also taking steps to save the School.’’

Pflugh, whose father was the fifth director of the school, continued: “By getting a bit more time via a temporary funding ‘bridge,’ we are confident we can identify other sources of investment and operational cost savings. We are working with legislators and the school’s staff to make this happen.’

Credit: NJSOC
Visitors to the New Jersey School of Conservation often get to see black bears like this one that was pictured in June 2019.

Tanya Sulikowski, a biologist who has been an environmental educator at the school for two years, first visited as a sixth grader. “It is just a magical place,’’ she said, a place where porcupines and black bears roam, and some of the cleanest streams in the state flow.

“Many of the environmental professionals I meet often tell me, ‘I wouldn’t be doing the job I am doing if I hadn’t been exposed to this place,’’’ Sulikowski said.

Generations of history

The school has about a dozen buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression where up to 200 people can be accommodated.

“There is nothing like it in New Jersey,’’ said Randy Fitzgerald, the associate director who is due to retire on July 1, after 33 years there. “We have seen a lot of second and third generations.’’

Initially, the center focused on preparing soon-to-be teachers on science, environmental education, and humanities, but it branched out to provide elementary school students with an introduction to environmental stewardship. Up to 6,000 students attend the courses each year, according to Sulikowski.

For many, it is the first time they are exposed to a remote nature experience, she said.

Cole expressed distress about the potential closure, but indicated her hands are tied.

“In an era when both the science of conservation, is critically important, it is a matter of genuine and considerable regret to the university that we can no longer maintain the school,” she said. “But we simply cannot.’’

The DEP declined to talk, saying they would have a comment Wednesday.