#Wilderness50: Restoring Wild Trails with a Member of Cabinet


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and SCA Commemorate the Wilderness Act

Where to begin? How many 22 year-old lumberjacks can say that they have cut down a blowdown with a congressman, the Secretary of the Interior, President of the Wilderness Society and the Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service? My head is inflating just thinking about it. But after yesterday my crew and I can say just that.

So the day began with opening remarks from Madame Secretary Sally Jewell. She started her career as a petroleum geologist in Oklahoma, worked as a commercial banker, served as the COO of REI and then their CEO. Finally, she was appointed by President Obama to the position of Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Okay. As if that isn’t cool enough, she began her speech by reminiscing about her most recent backpacking trip last week out west. More specifically, she spoke about the outhouses. Am I dreaming? A super successful and powerful woman was standing in front of me talking about the breathtaking views she saw from… an outhouse. I love her already and you can probably tell.

More remarks were made by Congressmen Frelinghuysen, Lance, and Holt and then by Jamie Williams, President of the Wilderness Society, and Laura Herrin, Vice President of SCA. Common themes were the remarkable diversity of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. There are 254 species of bird that call the swamp home at various points in their lives. They spoke of how important it is for community members to fight for their cherished wild spaces, just as Helen Fenske did when she rallied her neighbors to protect Great Swamp when the New York Port Authority wanted to turn the area into yet another major jetport for Greater New York, like Newark and LaGuardia. Commemorating the Wilderness Act’s first 50 years, the Congressmen and Madame Secretary pledged their continued support of wilderness, hopefully contribuiting to another half century of protection for our sacred and untrammeled natural lands. They mentioned that wilderness exercises and feeds the mind, body, and soul. The Great Swamp is unique because it’s less than 30 miles from Manhattan, providing convenient opportunities to urban populations to get a complete wilderness experience without going all the way west to Yellowstone or the Sierras. Secretary Jewell spoke about the beauty of far off places like the Alps with their fenced and pastured mountains. They’re beautiful she remarked, but in the Alps, you will not come across untouched wilderness like you have right here New Jersey and spaced throughout the U.S. While many areas of the Alps have been thoroughly tamed, American wilderness areas are not managed so intensely; they’re unique in how delicately and unintrusively they’re preserved, allowing for diverse native species to thrive.

Many thoughtful words later, Jewell traded out her orchid button-down for a gray Land and Water Conservation Fund t-shirt and we all headed down the trail. Facing numerous cameras, I got a taste of the spotlight that prominent lawmakers and administration officials face daily. We arrived at our destination, a 15 inch diameter log laid across the trail. Ed and I unwrapped the sheath from our beloved, century-old crosscut saw. We presented it to Frelinghuysen and Jewell and each of them took a side. After a few choice “bipartisanship jokes” about how well those two were working together, the cutting began smoothly. It was only after they had cut through a fair amount that the dreaded “pinch” happened. It happens to us every day on the crew, but we were hoping we’d get lucky on this particular outing. Unfortunately, the log pinched hard and the saw blade was thoroughly stuck. The crew started tossing out ideas about how we might lift the log and relieve the stress: bringing the peavey over and trying to lift it that way(nope), using the crowbar to lever it up (nothing), wedges (no change). Before long, Secretary Jewell requested a car jack. A car jack isn’t exactly a typical tool of the trail maintenance trade, but when you have a member of Cabinet on a time crunch, you go with the flow!

Shortly after the jack was in place, Secretary Jewell and Director Daniel Ashe of the USFWS completed the first cut and a great cheer rang up from the crowd. Ellen shouted, “Emily, show them the handshake!” I couldn’t think of a more opportune moment to teach a silly lumberjack handshake to the head of an entire federal department, so… Voom-BA!!

Short on time, we decided skip straight to cutting the “cookie (a thin disk of timber)” so our VIP guests could have a photo-op trophy for all of their hard work. The cookie cut was butter smooth, and the result was a beautiful cross section of a 50+ year old tree. After all that sweat-drenched work, a lot of hi-fiving, and some great photos, SCA high school members from Essex and Hunterdon helped us make the final cuts and we headed back to base for sandwiches and cookies (shaped like Puddles, the Fish and Wildlife mascot) thoughtfully provided by The Friends of the Great Swamp.

Everyone we talked with was thrilled with the job we had done! I didn’t know what to expect from our VIP guests (Would they be intimidating? Hard to get along with?), but they turned out to be friendly, down to earth environmentalists. By the end of the day Jess, Ed, and I were buzzing. We were like six year olds meeting their super-heroes. My mind was racing so much that I left my food on the roof of my car as I was about to pull away. Ellen caught me as she was leaving, “Are you going to be okay to drive home?” she asked. I was more than fine. My mind was just electrified.

Photos: Top two by Ann Pedtke for SCA, remaining by Keith Shannon for USFWS