Saving the School of Conservation

While originally functioning as a typical Friends group in support of the NJ School of Conservation (NJSOC), the role of the Friends of NJSOC changed dramatically as a result of events in the Spring of 2020. Overnight, this small group shifted from service projects and event planning to take on the full-time challenge of saving the School of Conservation. 

The New Jersey School of Conservation was founded in 1949, and occupies facilities in Stokes State Forest built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and previously known as the Skellinger Group Camp. From the beginning, Montclair State Teachers College was designated as the state agency responsible for the administration of the School. In 1981, Montclair’s management responsibility was defined in legislation that established NJSOC as a school for environmental field study in perpetuity. The legislation also provided an annual appropriation for the programming and maintenance of NJSOC that over the years grew to $1,050,000 annually.In a letter to the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) dated April 29, 2020, the President of Montclair State University (MSU) announced her intent to close the School of Conservation, layoff its 18 full-time employees, and return its management to NJDEP, the owner of the property, on July 1, 2020. The letter cites a lack of state funding for the previous nine years and the university’s inability to continue to fund the School.

The Friends of the NJ School of Conservation responded immediately with a letter-writing and publicity campaign in which supporters of the School advocated to keep it open. The campaign attracted the necessary attention that would later set the stage for negotiations between the Friends and NJDEP for the interim management of the School.

In the meantime, NJDEP directed MSU to issue a Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI) to begin a search for a new manager for NJSOC. On July 24, 2020, the Friends of NJSOC submitted a formal response to the RFEI. On August 31, 2020, MSU vacated the premises, returning management to NJDEP. The Friends’ RFEI response made it possible to initiate discussions with NJDEP.The Friends contacted NJDEP, offering to perform maintenance and security checks, and indicating interest in managing the facility until a permanent manager could be found. An initial meeting between Friends representatives and NJDEP staff was held on September 14, 2020. Additional meetings and site visits followed, leading to a first draft of a right of entry agreement providing the Friends with limited access for programs. The Friends’ negotiations team continued to meet with NJDEP representatives throughout the winter of 2021 to reach an agreement that was fully-executed on April 1, 2021.

Meanwhile, the Friends  built the support structure necessary to move forward with temporary management of NJSOC, beginning with a Board of Advisors and Trustees consisting of talented and committed environmental leaders and three former governors (Governors Florio, Whitman, and Kean). 

The first task upon unlocking the gate in April 2021 was to complete a full inventory of all materials left onsite after the previous manager’s departure. This would provide baseline data for NJDEP as well as determine what program materials and equipment would need to be replaced in order to resume programming. Sadly, the shopping list of materials to replace was substantial.

Next, volunteers were recruited and a schedule of twice weekly site inspections was created to help monitor and protect the property. More volunteers– over one hundred of them– were enlisted in clean-up events to ready the site for limited programming commencing in May 2021. From May through December 2021, the Friends provided public programs for over 500 children and adults from throughout the state in activities ranging from archery to outdoor bread baking to salamander hunts, astronomy, and native plant gardening. In November 2021, the first school group was welcomed back for a single-day field trip (Kudos to Wenonah School for driving 3 hours… in the rain… to give their students the NJSOC experience!). 

Working with their Advisory Board, and with the stalwart support of Assemblyman John McKeon and Senator Bob Smith, Friends secured a $1 million grant in June 2021 to help restore the school’s neglected facilities. To ensure the wise use of this grant money, the Friends used its own funding to hire an engineering firm to conduct the first-ever property condition assessment of all NJSOC structures, systems, and infrastructure and a capital improvement plan prioritizing the renovation and repair needs of the facility. 

In January 2022, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection issued a Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI) for the School of Conservation property. Working with several organizational and academic partners, the Friends prepared and submitted its response on March 7, 2022. Montclair State University, now under the leadership of a new college president, also expressed interest in taking back the School of Conservation. By this time, a bill (S438) to change the 1981 legislation naming Montclair State as manager of NJSOC had been introduced in the state legislature. Both RFEI applicants appeared in hearings before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, with officers and advisors of the Friends testifying in favor of the new bill and management change. Friends gained the unanimous bipartisan support of the committee. On May 13th, Montclair State announced that it was withdrawing its proposal to resume management of the school.

Testimony on the companion Assembly Bill (A3149) before the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on May 16, 2022 yielded the same unanimous support. The bills, which included an annual appropriation for the NJSOC, were released to the full Assembly and Senate where they also received unanimous bipartisan support.

On October 21st, Governor Phil Murphy signed the Assembly and Senate bills transferring management of the NJSOC to the Friends of the NJSOC and setting the stage for a long-term lease to be negotiated between NJDEP and the Friends. A 20-year lease was executed on May 24, 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 to reinstitute overnight programs for teachers and school groups.