Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated

Local citizens fought to protect a unique wild area within the New York metropolitan area that was threatened with conversion to a major jetport, demonstrating the power of grassroots environmental movements.

Summary of Event

In 1959, the New York-New Jersey Port Authority New York-New Jersey Port Authority[New York New Jersey Port Authority]
Port Authority, New York-New Jersey[Port Authority, New York New Jersey] began to explore an area in Morris County, New Jersey (about twenty-six miles west of Manhattan), as the site of a fifth jetport for the New York metropolitan area. The site included ten thousand acres of rural countryside, including a wetland known as the Great Swamp. Previous threats to the wetland had included flood-control projects in the 1920’s and drainage projects in the 1930’s, but news of the jetport proposal catalyzed local citizens to fight the decision. With the support of scientists, politicians, and other influential people, citizen groups sought not only to block conversion of the Great Swamp to a jetport but also to convert it to a national wildlife refuge and wilderness area. Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge
Conservation;public land
Wilderness reserves
Wildlife sanctuaries
[kw]Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated (May 29, 1964)
[kw]Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated, Great Swamp (May 29, 1964)
Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge
Conservation;public land
Wilderness reserves
Wildlife sanctuaries
[g]North America;May 29, 1964: Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated[08070]
[g]United States;May 29, 1964: Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated[08070]
[c]Environmental issues;May 29, 1964: Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Is Dedicated[08070]
Dodge, Marcellus Hartley
Fenske, Helen
Frelinghuysen, Peter, Jr.
Gottschalk, John S.
Meyner, Robert B.
Tobin, Austin J.

The controversy began on December 3, 1959, when The Newark Evening News published news of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority’s decision. According to the Port Authority, the four existing area airports—Kennedy (then known as Idlewild), LaGuardia, Newark, and Teterboro—were insufficient to meet future demand, which was projected to be 70 million passengers annually by the 1970’s. In proposing a new jetport in New Jersey, the Port Authority, a billion-dollar, bi-state agency that owned and controlled bridges, tunnels, and airports in the New York metropolitan area, planned to reach outside its legal boundaries. The new site would cover twice the area of Kennedy Airport.

Elected officials in northern New Jersey recognized the effects such a major facility would have on their constituencies: noise, traffic congestion, loss of property values, and possible damage to underground water supplies. Communities that had been planning for slow, steady growth over the next decades were faced with the possibility of uncontrollable, instant expansion.

Community response began with letters, telegrams, and phone calls to Governor Robert Meyner, to the Federal Aviation Agency, and to Austin J. Tobin, the executive director of the Port Authority. Municipal governments and community organizations sent formal resolutions to the New Jersey legislature condemning the jetport. Although there was support for the expansion of the Port Authority into Morris County to enable it to extend a rapid-transit system through Morris, Somerset, Mercer, and Passaic Counties, legislators who had proposed this expansion chose not to push their bills at the time. Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen, Jr., rapidly acquired the backing of elected officials at all levels in the five counties of his congressional district to oppose jetport construction on the Great Swamp site.

Local citizens recognized that they needed to develop a plan to protect the swamp permanently. Local newspapers, as well as The Newark News and other regional presses, began detailed coverage of the issue. Within two weeks, Governor Meyner’s mail was running 836 to 5 against the jetport.

According to the Port Authority, fourteen sites had been evaluated, and only the Great Swamp site had been found to meet all criteria. It was argued that although several communities would be decimated and about seven hundred homes, several churches, schools, and small businesses would be destroyed, the jetport would bring tremendous economic advantages to the area in the form of Port Authority tax payments, increased employment from airport and constructions jobs, and development of business around the new facility.

The Great Swamp had been created through a series of geologic events occurring over a period of almost 170 million years. After volcanic action laid the bedrock and glacial scouring set the drainage pattern for the area, glacial Lake Passaic was formed; when it eventually drained, it left a seven-mile bowl at its lowest point. Over thousands of years, plant communities evolved there. In 1959, the Great Swamp ecosystem included bottomland hardwood swamps and surrounding mixed hardwood forests, meadows, pastures, and farmland. Some of the area had already been drained in the 1930’s by a Works Progress Administration (WPA) flood-control project, and homes had been built along country roads that bordered the swamp.

The key to the success of what became a nine-year battle to protect the swamp lay in the campaign’s diversity. The group pulled together by Frelinghuysen formed a political steering committee. A citizen’s advisory council was created and chaired by George K. Batt Batt, George K. , a businessman and former mayor of the nearby town of Montclair. Together with thirteen other volunteer committees, Batt’s group formed an organization that came to be known as the Jersey Jetport Site Association Jersey Jetport Site Association (JJSA). This group gathered information, sought technical advice, and promoted its cause through speaking engagements, newsletters, and press coverage. It also worked with New Jersey’s state and federal legislators (all of whom opposed the jetport as proposed) and with local political and business leaders.

The political and legislative players sought legal recourse to prevent the construction, communities that would be affected hired consultants to study the socioeconomic effects, and the citizens concerned solely with protection of the swamp mobilized as well. While politicians lobbied in Trenton, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., conservationists forged partnerships with agencies, foundations, and organizations that shared their concern for the Great Swamp ecosystem. Through the involvement of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, a local resident whose family estate was targeted by the jetport, these concerned citizens eventually joined the North American Wildlife Foundation North American Wildlife Foundation (NAWF) and created the Great Swamp Committee. The NAWF had a history of acquiring lands and holding them until the government could purchase them for wildlife preserves. In 1958, Dodge had been instrumental in helping the organization acquire land for Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Through negotiations between the NAWF and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. the U.S. Department of the Interior Department of the Interior, U.S. agreed that if the committee could put together three thousand acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. would designate the area as a national wildlife refuge. Once the group transferred title to two thousand acres, the agency would begin active management.

In September, 1960, the first gift of one thousand acres was deeded to the NAWF, to be turned over eventually to the Department of the Interior. In June, 1961, John S. Gottschalk, then regional director of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, met with leaders of the conservation group and a reporter for The Newark Evening News and agreed to support their plans.

By July, 1962, the group had still not acquired the entire three thousand acres needed. That month, Governor Meyner set a public hearing on Senate Bill 218, which prohibited establishment of a jetport in Morris and six other northern New Jersey counties. The bill had been passed by 18 to 0 and 33 to 3 votes, in the state senate and assembly, respectively, and more than six hours of testimony had been predominantly in favor of the bill. Nevertheless, the governor indicated that the bill was unconstitutional (according to many attorneys, it was not) and vetoed it.

At the same time that local citizens and their elected officials struggled to gain political and economic support for the protection of the Great Swamp, and as conservationists strove to consolidate their holdings, the Port Authority continued to pursue its plan. The overbearing and noncooperative response of August Tobin, the executive director of the Port Authority, eventually landed the authority under official investigation by both the New Jersey legislature and the U.S. Congress, with contempt citations voted against Tobin and others. Subcommittee members investigating the authority found examples of kickbacks, favoritism, undue influence, freeloading, and patronage. Despite minor changes within the agency, however, the investigations did little to deter the Port Authority.

At the same time, a number of reports had concluded that a new jetport in the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area would not be needed for at least ten years, and probably not until well into the 1980’s. One report concluded that the Morris County site would be difficult and costly to develop, that the results would not meet all noise abatement and safety requirements, and that the impact on surrounding communities would cause major disruption. Another report pointed out that the local area was already positioned for positive economic growth over the next twenty years and that the proposed jetport would not only stimulate unnecessary and undesirable growth but also have adverse impact on the area around the Great Swamp. These reports provided substantial detailed information, much of which was absent from, and contradictory to, reports prepared by the Port Authority in support of the site.


In 1960, the first lands were accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and management of the refuge officially began. Before the end of 1962, incoming governor Richard Hughes endorsed the establishment of a wildlife refuge and signed the bill prohibiting the jetport construction. By 1963, the state had provided $25,000 from its Green Acres conservation program to purchase additional acreage. On May 29, 1964, the Great Swamp Committee of the NAWF officially presented Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall Udall, Stewart L. with a gift of 2,600 acres of land at the dedication of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Through the following years, additional parcels were added, until by 1990 more than 7,000 acres were consolidated. More than 6,100 persons and 462 organizations in 29 states contributed to the effort. Further protection was gained in 1967, when 3,750 acres were designated as the Marcellus Hartley Dodge Wilderness Area.

Threats to the swamp continued from land-use decisions outside its official boundaries. For that reason, the Great Swamp Committee evolved into the Great Swamp Watershed Association Foundation, which would continue to guard the land. The citizens involved in the “jetport war” learned that ecological protection requires commitment, organization, technical expertise, and constant vigilance. Concerned citizens would continue to affect local and state zoning and help revise regulations for the area.

The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge remains a viable ecosystem, with a wealth of plant and wildlife species that are viewed by around 350,000 visitors annually. While the Port Authority never officially gave up on the Great Swamp site, it eventually authorized major expansion and redevelopment for Newark Airport, which handled the traffic adequately. Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge
Conservation;public land
Wilderness reserves
Wildlife sanctuaries

Further Reading

  • Cavanaugh, Cam. Saving the Great Swamp: The People, the Power Brokers, and an Urban Wilderness. Frenchtown, N.J.: Columbia, 1978. Presents the entire story of the struggle between the Port Authority and the citizens of northern New Jersey. Comprehensive, but somewhat confusing in organization. A must read for anyone truly interested in the issues.
  • Chase, E. T. “How to Rescue New York from Its Port Authority.” Harper’s Magazine 220 (June, 1960): 67-74. Journalistic coverage of the Port Authority. Provides information on the role and the responsibilities of the Port Authority and examples of how the authority might be overstepping its bounds.
  • Morris, Joe Alex. “Jetport Showdown in New Jersey.” Saturday Evening Post 233 (December 17, 1960): 29. An article that conservationists hoped would support their cause but that actually did more to support development of the land as a jetport than as a refuge.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Briefing Summary. Basking Ridge, N.J.: Author, 1990. This Fish and Wildlife Service document outlines the history and the controversy surrounding the establishment of the refuge, describes the area, and provides information on the ecological and social environment of the area. A clear summary of an event otherwise documented only in scattered and ephemeral materials.
  • _______. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fishes. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2005. Another official Fish and Wildlife Service document, summarizing the status of cold-blooded species living within the refuge as of September, 2005.

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