NJ decides fate of 70-year-old environmental conservation school, a rural oasis amidst density

Tucked inside Stokes State Forest in New Jersey, about half a dozen kids set bug traps, using vanilla cookies and tuna to see which six-legged creatures they catch.

“Doing science is very easy, you can just go to the dollar store like I did,” said Denise Manole, 24, as she led a class on insect identification one morning in spring. “It’s just going out and doing it and then having fun and loving what you’re doing. That’s all science is.

Manol is a New Jersey Watershed Ambassador with AmeriCorps and leads one of the few workshops at the New Jersey School of Conservation.

The 240-acre school is a rural oasis in the densest state in the United States. The school is located in Sussex County, the northwestern county of the state, near the state border with Pennsylvania and New York. It features single-story red cabins spread across the Stokes State Forest, a peaceful enclave 80 miles west of denser Essex County.

During the pandemic, school management closed the campus due to budget constraints until a nonprofit group temporarily reopened it. Now state officials are deciding the fate of the school — and who will run it.

Since its opening in 1949, the school has trained more than 400,000 teachers and students in environmental and conservation studies, according to its supporters. But Montclair State University, which was responsible for running the school, closed campus in 2020saying he couldn’t afford to keep it running.

Former Montclair president Susan Cole said the state transferred management and control of the land to the university in 1981 and included an allocation of annual state funds. But those public funds dried up 10 years ago, Cole wrote in a letter to lawmakers advising them of the school’s July 2020 closure.

“At a time when conservation science and educating future generations about conservation is of crucial importance, it is a sincere and considerable regret for the university that we can no longer maintain the school, but we just can’t,” Cole wrote.

Montclair State University has returned the keys to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“[Montclair State] announced that they were closing rather abruptly and without really any warning,” Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends of New Jersey Conservation School said Gothamist. “It took everyone by surprise.”

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Pflugh said once she heard about the closure, the Friends group sprang into action, calling on the governor’s office, lawmakers and state officials to let them keep the campus open. It worked.

The DEP gave Friends permission to provide “limited public programming” and “to establish a regular presence at the school for safety reasons,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. Friends reopened the school in April 2021.

“It’s our attempt to continue to offer programs that we historically would have offered, but in a kind of cliff-note approach,” Pflugh said, adding that she hopes the group gets permanent management. “A kind of school conservation mantra has always been discovery through field study, we’re a big proponent of experiential learning.”

Pflugh, whose father served as the school’s principal for 38 years, said lawmakers gave Friends $1 million to oversee emergency repairs and capital improvements to the campus of 57 buildings. The buildings include a cafeteria, offices, classrooms and cabins for student overnight stays.

In January, the DEP published a call for proposals groups interested in school management; Hajna said they are still in the review process. The DEP said three entities submitted proposals, including the Friends group, DiamondPREP — and Montclair State University.

But Montclair State told Gothamist last week it was withdrawing its proposal to allow the process to proceed “without conflict.”

“We believe our model will support the development of New Jersey’s green economy while embracing the powerful legacy of the School of Conservation. However, the last thing we want is to distract from the school and its mission,” university spokesman Andrew Mees said in a statement.

“We wish whoever is chosen to lead this important resource every success, and we will provide any historical information that may assist in their successful stewardship.

The DEP did not confirm whether Montclair State had officially opted out of the process or say when the state would select a new manager for the property.

A pending proposal

Two lawmakers also law projects who would transfer the management of the school to the Friends.

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Voters Leaguesaid the school has so much potential and could serve as a resource for future generations.

“We have the most concrete and pavement of any other state per square mile,” he said. In school, “education really happens in nature… and making the connection with what is the role of man in conservation? Whether it’s a day trip or an overnight trip, it can be very educational for young people.

Years of teachers, school-aged students, master’s students, and doctoral students have attended summer camps, day programs, or conducted their field studies here. But these days, the school is mostly empty, with the occasional program like adult fly-fishing lessons, searching for edible plants, or watching migratory birds from America’s rainforest. central and southern.

At an insect workshop in April, 7-year-old Clara Lovell colored a cut-out picture of a grasshopper to camouflage it in some bushes.

“I’ve heard the word thorax – the middle of the insect – a lot, so I can really remember it,” said Lovell, 7. “Here, my class is outside and like in the forest. That’s why I love this place so much, because it teaches me a lot about nature.”

Lovell visited his grandfather Mike Roche, a former high school science teacher who says he used to take his students to conservation school in the 1980s and 1990s.

“For more than a dozen years, I brought classes during the school year to take advantage of the residential program,” he said.

Mother Allison Pohorence said she brought her daughter, niece and nephew after seeing the event on Facebook.

“This place has a lot of history,” she said. “When you walk in, you can tell there is happiness here. There’s like a bunch of maybe happy kids who stayed here or something.

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