The New Jersey School of Conservation, located on a remote tract in Stokes State Forest where teachers and students came together to learn about environmental stewardship, will open once again, possibly as soon as next month.
The school — a respected, but not widely known, institution — closed abruptly last year after seven decades, a victim of long-running fiscal problems as well as concerns over the pandemic caused by COVID-19.
The Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation (NJSOC), however, finalized a temporary access agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection allowing the not-for-profit organization to reopen the school for limited programming in May on a portion of its 240 acres.
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends, said she was grateful to the Murphy administration and DEP for working with the organization to reopen the school.
“In less than a year, we were able to forge this extraordinary agreement thanks to the help of our advisors, Friends members and the thousands of students, teachers and researchers across the state, nation and world who lobbied on behalf of the NJSOC,’’ said Pflugh, whose father was the fifth director of the school.
The school was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. It was formally established as a residential outdoor education field center in 1949 by former Gov. Alfred Driscoll.
Leader in environmental education
Originally set up as a children’s summer camp offering demonstrations and lessons on conservation, and then later as a training center for college students, the school eventually evolved into one of the largest environmental education centers in the world. Since 1949, more than a half-million students, teachers and researchers participated in education and training sessions there. More than a few ending up working at DEP and other parts of state government.
“Over the years, the NJSOC has inspired thousands of students, including myself to pursue careers in a multitude of environmental fields,’’ said Dennis Toft, Friends advisor, legal counsel for the Friends and chair of the environmental group at Chiesa Shahinian and Giantomasi.
The access agreement is effective through Dec. 31 and may be renewed for no more than two additional one-year terms. It is expected the DEP will issue for a long-term facility management lease agreement, an option the Friends of the School hope to pursue.
“This temporary agreement is a first step in fully reopening the NJSOC,’’ said Bernard Weintraub, Friends advisor and lead negotiator for the access agreement.
Programming offered by the Friends, pending approval by the DEP, will include both professional programs for teachers and family programs on topics such as climate change, fishing and New Jersey wildlife. All of the programming will be held outdoors until restrictions resulting from the pandemic are lifted.
Five program events will be permitted per month, according to Shayne Russell, vice president of the Friends, who helped negotiate the agreement with the DEP. The school has about a dozen buildings where up to 200 people can be accommodated.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, described the access agreement as a win for the environment. “This is critical because the SOC is truly one of the best places in New Jersey to study pollution, climate, conservation and more in the middle of a major wildlife area. This will buy time to come up with a long-time solution to keep it open all the time.’’