The birth of New Jersey’s environmental movement began with a news scoop.
On Dec. 3 1959, folks living near the Great Swamp in Morris County were stunned to see a front page Newark Evening News story revealing the Port Authority’s plan to build a new airport in the marshes, wetlands, meadows and woods of the Great Swamp.
Residents quickly mobilized to fight the “jetport.” One grassroots group quietly bought up private land in the swamp for preservation, while a second concentrated on rebutting the Port Authority’s justification. Strategies were plotted at kitchen tables … and carried out at high-level meetings in Trenton and Washington, D.C.
The fight to save the swamp lasted the better part of a decade, officially ending in September 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation placing the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the national wilderness system.
Fifty-seven years after that first fateful newspaper headline, most of the key players in the battle to save the Great Swamp are gone and memories of their contributions are fading. Visitors to the refuge are unaware of how close this tranquil landscape came to becoming an airport!
Luckily, today the story is being retold in a new documentary, “Saving the Great Swamp: Battle to Defeat the Jetport,” by award-winning filmmaker Scott Morris and co-producer Larry Fast, both of whom live near the swamp. The documentary will premiere on Saturday, Dec. 3 – exactly 57 years to the day after the Port Authority’s plans were leaked.
Larry, who lives in Meyersville, believes the battle of the Great Swamp represents “the birth of the modern environmental movement” in New Jersey and beyond.
In late 1959, he explained, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had yet to be published, Earth Day didn’t exist, and major legislation like the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were years in the future. There was no roadmap on how to how to defeat such an environmentally damaging proposal. The roadmap was drawn by the Great Swamp defenders.
“The people in our story were pioneers,” he said. “They were well ahead of the movement.”
The documentary is based on meticulous research done by Cam Cavanaugh, author of the 1978 book, “Saving the Great Swamp.”
Larry said that when he first read the book, he thought it would make a terrific documentary. But he didn’t pursue it until the spring of 2014, when he and his wife Phyllis were inspired by a presentation on the Great Swamp by Harding Township Mayor Nic Platt.
They approached Mayor Platt - a descendent of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, the money behind many of the early land purchases – with their idea. Platt was enthusiastic and helped Fast and Morris line up philanthropic support.
The resulting a one-hour documentary incorporates archival photos, old television footage and on-camera interviews of people connected to the Great Swamp battle. Cavanaugh and Platt were interviewed, as was Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, whose late father Peter fought the Port Authority proposal as a congressman.
Also interviewed were the children of the late Helen Fenske, the Green Village housewife who founded the Great Swamp Committee, which later evolved into New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Another interview subject was Lillie DeBevoise, one of the many dedicated airport opponents who spent countless hours folding brochures, stuffing envelopes, making phone calls and rallying community support. She and her husband, Charlie, were among the other founders of the Great Swamp Committee, and NJ Conservation Foundation. Lillie, a lifelong conservationist, passed away earlier this year.
“It’s a very complex weave of a story,” said Fast. “Squeezing it all into one hour wasn’t easy.” Fast and Morris will screen the documentary locally, and hope to convince PBS, the Smithsonian or another like-minded organization to broadcast it.
“Saving the Great Swamp” is a story well worth recounting, and this state we’re in is fortunate that the story is being retold in this new film. The premiere at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center is sold out, but look for other local screenings in the coming months.
And if you haven’t yet been, make sure you visit the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and experience its beauty for yourself. For information and maps, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/great_swamp/.
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