Will School of Conservation get a lifeline?

Lawmakers press for $3 million to get environmental programs up and running for good
Credit: (NJ League of Conservation Voters)
In the pollinator garden at the New Jersey School of Conservation

A coalition of conservationists is pushing the Legislature to set aside $3 million in next year’s state budget to secure funding for year-round programs at the New Jersey School of Conservation.

The school, located on a remote 240-acre tract in Stokes State Forest, closed abruptly last year due to financial problems, ending a seven-decade tradition in which teachers and students across New Jersey came together to learn about environmental stewardship.

It reopened this past spring with limited programming under a temporary agreement between the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation.

READ: Conservation school faces uncertain future

WATCH: Students eye work in the green sector

Environmental heavyweights

So far, backers of the school have lined up Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), two of the biggest champions of environmental issues in the Legislature to sponsor a budget resolution funding the institution.

“From threats to the Garden State’s biodiversity to the impacts of climate change, the New Jersey School of Conservation is on the front lines of educating the next generation of environmental leaders and scientists,’’ Smith said.

McKeon, a member of the Assembly Budget Committee called the school critical to encouraging responsible environmental stewardship.

“Many of our state’s environmental leaders, educators, lawyers, engineers and researchers got their start at the NJSOC,’’ said Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of Friends of the NJSOC, the group advocating on behalf of the school. “Passing this resolution will ensure that future generations of environmental leaders have the same opportunity.’’

The school was built on 240 acres 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.

Originally set up as a children’s summer camp, 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.

“The lessons I learned at the NJ School of Conservation both as a fifth-grade student and as a high school’s teaching aide were among the factors that influenced my decision to pursue a career in environmental law,’’ said Dennis Toft, a lawyer who heads the environmental group at Chiesa Shahinian and Giantomasi.

“The school is critical for our students to experience conservation first hand, scientists to conduct research and the public to learn about environmental protection,’’ added Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Since the school reopened this past Memorial Day, it has sponsored fishing tournaments, taught youth survival skills and offered a range of educational programs, according to Potosnak. Unlike the past, there are no overnight stays, a ban that could be lifted with New Jersey opening up more as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs.

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