The 50th Anniversary of The Wilderness Act


Preparing Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to Celebrate 50 Years of Wilderness

When William Bradford hopped off of the Mayflower and onto Plymouth Rock, he described the landscape that lay before him as a “hideous and desolate wilderness.” Wilderness, in 1620, was not a scarce resource to be protected and treasured. It was scary and empty, a wasted space awaiting the day that an enterprising human might chop it up, organize it, and put it to good use.

Things have changed a lot in the last 400 years, and especially in the last half-century. On September 3, 2014 SCA members will gather with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wilderness Society, and LBJ Foundation at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris County, New Jersey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on the same day in 1964. In 2014 the word “wilderness” typically conjures images of remote tundras swarming with giant mosquitos and hungry grizzlies, so it may seem an odd choice to celebrate this major milestone 30 miles from New York City. On clear days it’s even possible to spot the Manhattan skyline lurking on the refuge’s eastern horizon. So why here?

Emily Bowles has some ideas. She’s part of the millennial-gen SCA crew working to prepare the refuge for next week’s anniversary festivities. For as long as the Wilderness Act has existed, SCA (The Student Conservation Association) has been providing opportunities for young conservationists like Emily to help ensure its central promise: to forever protect areas “where earth and it’s community of life are untrammeled by man.” Having spent the last several days clearing storm debris from Great Swamp’s hiking trails, it’s Emily’s belief that “it’s the wilderness areas near major urban centers, where populations are becoming more and more detached from the great outdoors, that have the greatest potential to impact our most nature-deprived citizens.” Further, she points out, “Great Swamp happens to be the first wilderness area designated by congress after the Act was passed in 1964.”

Much of the credit for this distinction must go Helen Fenske of Green Village, NJ. When, in 1959, the Port Authority of New York declared its intention to build a new jetport right in the middle of Great Swamp, Fenske became a conservation activist overnight. She helped form the Great Swamp Committee, held meetings around her kitchen table, and travelled the countryside with a slide presentation to inform people of the swamp’s crucial importance to local ecosystems and wildlife. She eventually gained enough support to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the 2900 acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on May 29, 1964. When, in spite of this fact, the Port Authority continued to pursue the land as a site for the jetport, Fenske found a way to guarantee that it would be preserved in perpetuity. In 1968, as a direct result of Fenske’s efforts, congress designated Great Swamp NWR a permanently protected Wilderness Area.

One of the many happy results of this accomplishment is that 46 years later, Emily Bowles and her crewmates are clearing fallen trees from Great Swamp’s hiking trails using a 100 year old two-man crosscut saw. Why don’t they just go to Home Depot and pick up something with a little more horsepower? Because power tools are absolutely prohibited in federally designated wilderness areas.

And so for the next week and a half Emily and her compadres will roam the 6 miles of trail surrounding the celebration site, clearing debris leftover from Hurricane Sandy using tools even their grandparents would probably find old-fashioned: hand saws, axes, that antique crosscutter, and something called a PeeVee.

Keep an eye on the Follow Me Field Blog, as Emily will be reflecting on her experiences leading up to the day that the Wilderness Act turns 50. In the meantime, learn more about Emily and her teammates below.

Emily Bowles, SCA Leader Crew Member – Born and raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Emily is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in geology from SUNY New Paltz. In addition to leading her college’s geology and outdoor clubs, she’s conducted cave surveys, analyzed groundwater quality in the Catskills, and presented to the National Geological Society of America. She enjoys all things outdoors, including rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, cycling, and running. She hopes, through her work with SCA, to instill a love and appreciation of nature in the youth of Jersey City, NJ.

Jessica Doyle, SCA Leader Crew Member – A New Jersey native with a BA in philosophy and a masters in social work, Jessica enjoys helping others become better acquainted with the nature in their own backyard. An AmeriCorps alum, this is Jessica’s second SCA experience.

Edward Whitehead, SCA Leader Crew Member – Armed with an Ecology and Natural Resources degree from Rutgers University, New Jersey native Edward Whitehead has studied shellfish in Cape May, researched rain forests in Puerto Rico, and surveyed ferruginous hawks in Wyoming. An avid hiker, he’s lead crews for SCA for two straight years.

Ellen Cronan, SCA Crew Leader – Lifetime Jersey resident Ellen Cronan has been volunteering with the NY NJ Trail Conference for over 20 years. An avid peakbagger in the northeast, she truly appreciates the organized effort it takes to maintain a good trail. She has an MS in environmental engineering, and she’s been leading crews for SCA since 2009.


Great Swamp nature photos (top to bottom) by Nick Barx, Keith Survell, Gay Raab, & Chuck Hantis