Op-Ed: A Plea to Save the New Jersey School of Conservation

Without intervention, a decision by leaders at Montclair State University will mean the end of a 71-year history of environmental education
Douglas B. Larkin

When those who have been entrusted with environmental stewardship decide that the task is no longer worth the effort, what does that say about our shared future? Further, what happens when those stewards opportunistically take advantage of their access to seize what they can from a shared resource before it is no longer theirs?

These are living questions at what may now be the end of a 71-year history of environmental education at the New Jersey School of Conservation (NJSOC).

In the mid 1940s, a group of concerned educators and interested conservationists in New Jersey recognized that college students needed a field campus for experiences in conservation and outdoor education. In the spring of 1949, after deliberation between the state government and college administrators, the New Jersey State School of Conservation was established on the 240-acre site of the Skellinger Group Camp, which had been constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s in Stokes State Forest.

By 1967, the conservation school was serving over 4,000 college sophomores and juniors per year as part of a mandatory component of their teacher education programs, because environmental education was considered a critical element of becoming a teacher.

In 1981, the New Jersey Legislature placed the school under the direction of the Board of Trustees of Montclair State University. The statute stated that the land and buildings together should be used in perpetuity as a school for environmental field study. Notably, the legislative language also provided a funding mechanism to ensure that MSU’s stewardship of this unique facility would not be adversely affected by the annual state budget process.

The New Jersey School of Conservation is more than just a collection of land and buildings; it is the embodiment of the idea of conservation itself.

The on-site wetlands grass field for remediating bio-solids was one of the first in the nation, and showed a path forward for cleaning up pollution elsewhere in the state. The school’s large solar array demonstrated how institutions could integrate renewable energy long before panels became as ubiquitous as they are today. The scientific work done by world-class researchers and emerging generations of graduate students at the school has helped sustain New Jersey’s wildlife and ecosystems through crucial research on such wide-ranging topics as amphibians, tree pathogens, and soils.

And all throughout its history, the NJSOC has served thousands of K-12 students, college students, and teachers who have resided and learned at the school, and who have left charged as stewards of the environment, able to understand and act upon local and global issues as a result of their experiences there.

Transferring back to state ownership

On May 14, 2020, MSU announced that it would be closing the School of Conservation and transferring ownership back to the state. In the announcement, MSU president Susan Cole stated, “In an era when both the science of conservation, and the education of future generations about conservation is critically important, it is a matter of genuine and considerable regret to the University that we can no longer maintain the School.”

The very idea of conservation is being upended by the university’s decision to lay off staff, and evict the director — who has been supported by the National Geographic Society for his conservation work — and his family from their house on the grounds, and walk away from its obligations.

To add insult to injury, MSU is at this very writing removing everything from the land that is not a building or a living creature, and plans are underway to erect a gate to chain the facility closed. Their argument for doing so is that everything that is not land or buildings belongs to the university.

They also argue privately that the school is a drain on precious financial resources because it is not revenue-generating. This is an impoverished and predatory view of stewardship, and betrays the reasons why this facility and the land on which it sits were placed in MSU’s care in the first place.

Unfortunately, New Jersey has a long history of making environmental mistakes that take decades or centuries to repair. The ideas that are nurtured at places like the New Jersey School of Conservation have helped us figure out not just how to restore our wetlands, inland waterways, and forests, but our farmlands, cities, and suburbs as well.

As New Jersey takes bold new environmental action related to climate change — including being a leader in requiring climate change education for all K-12 students — the School of Conservation is poised to continue its leadership role in this effort.

Montclair State’s action is not only rash and shortsighted, but an abdication of its responsibility to the state of New Jersey and its people. Without swift and meaningful action by the university’s Board of Trustees and the state government, this treasured legacy of environmental education in the state of New Jersey is in danger of being lost forever.

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