A Brief History

The Friends of NJSOC was launched in March 1987 at a meeting of NJSOC faculty and approximately 20 staff members from visiting schools. Attendance at the meeting, which was held at the School of Conservation, reflected NJSOC’s clientele—including long- and short-term program participants, public and private schools, and professionals working with students at varying grade levels. The group discussed potential volunteer projects, and an invitation to join the organization was extended at NJSOC’s Spring Teacher Training Workshop in 1988.

As stated in the group’s Constitution, the purpose of the Friends of NJSOC was “to serve as an independent support group, assisting in financial needs and support services.” The group’s first major project was to fund and assist in the construction of a new climbing wall. In addition, they purchased spinning and weaving supplies for DeGroat Cabin programs, and developed and planted an herb garden for use in making natural dyes for American Craft Heritage skills programs. The group also purchased necessary curriculum materials for classes in the Natural Sciences. Service projects including painting DeGroat Cabin and grading the roads to the Wapalanne cabins were completed as well.

The Friends also recognized the accomplishments and contributions of individuals who had provided outstanding service through its annual Friends of NJSOC Award of Merit.

The Friends group remained active through 1996 and, after a period of inactivity, was revived through the efforts of Kerry Kirk Pflugh (daughter of former NJSOC Director, Dr. John J. Kirk) and Shayne Russell (former Wapalanne camper and counselor) at the request of current NJSOC Director, Dr. Bill Thomas, in 2015. The new Friends group continued the original mission of supporting NJSOC, and took on projects focusing on restoration, preservation, and advocacy. Beginning as a small group consisting largely of former Camp Wapalanne campers and counselors, the Friends expanded their reach to include NJSOC supporters from a large cross-section of the School’s past and present programs in preparation for a three-day celebration of NJSOC’s 70thAnniversary in October 2019.

Less than a year later, the closure of NJSOC was announced, with the Friends of NJSOC becoming the driving force in an effort to save the School. After seven months of negotiation with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, owners of NJSOC, the Friends secured a limited Right of Access agreement making it possible to reopen the School in May 2021. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, the School opened on a small scale. offering a variety of single-day, socially distanced, outdoor programs led by volunteer experts.

Continuing its pursuit of the School’s permanent management role, the Friends found champions for their cause in Assemblyman John McKeon and Senator Bob Smith, who secured an appropriation of $1 million for the School in the state budget signed by Governor Phil Murphy in June of 2021. The following year, Assemblyman McKeon and Senator Bob Smith submitted a second appropriation request which became part of Governor Phil Murphy’s state budget on June 30, 2022.

For the Friends to fully assume the management responsibilities for the School of Conservation, it was critical to amend the existing legislation assigning that role to Montclair State (N.J.S.A. 18A:64I-1). Once again, the unwavering support of Assemblyman John McKeon and Senator Bob Smith was instrumental in making this happen. Companion bills sponsored by these legislators, which included an annual appropriation for the NJSOC, were passed with unanimous bipartisan support. On October 21st, 2022, Governor Phil Murphy signed the Assembly and Senate bills transferring management of the NJSOC to the Friends of the NJSOC, setting the stage for a long-term lease to be negotiated between NJDEP and the Friends.

A 20-year lease with NJDEP was executed on May 24th, 2023, allowing the Friends to move closer to its goal of fully reopening and restoring the School of Conservation through hiring professional staff, launching major projects to repair and upgrade facilities and systems, and reinstitution overnight programs for teachers and school groups.