As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we reflect on how the dedicated efforts of Helen Fenske helped to conserve the area that is now Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Basking Ridge, N.J.
In 1959, Helen Fenske was a housewife living in Green Village, N.J., when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey declared that they needed another jetport in the metropolitan area.
They determined that Great Swamp was the ideal location. When the news broke, meetings were called in the local communities. The turnout was so great that there was standing room only in the local high school. One outcome of the meeting was the establishment of the Great Swamp Committee. Fenske was appointed secretary of the committee.
A small group of people worked together, often meeting at Fenske’s kitchen table. Early in the campaign, there was a need to educate people on the value of the “swamp” and the importance of the land and its wildlife. She would bring an old slide projector to any group that would listen. Support grew for protecting the area.
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Fenske and Grace Hand of the committee traveled to the Service’s Northeast regional office to present the idea of creating a refuge at Great Swamp. Despite initial reluctance, with the enthusiasm of the women and their slideshow presentation, they were able to convince the director that Great Swamp should be a national wildlife refuge. On May 29, 1964, 2,900 acres were presented to Stuart Udall, Secretary of the Interior at the time. Fenske was recognized for her contributions on that day.
Undaunted, the Port Authority continued to try to acquire Great Swamp for an airport.
Congress created the Wilderness Act in 1964 to protect large areas as wilderness set aside for people. Why couldn’t there be a wilderness area at Great Swamp, Fenske thought? Such a classification would protect Great Swamp, however, its size did not meet the criteria of the Act. The refuge was not truly safe from development until the wilderness designation was secured. Fenske educated herself in the ways of Congress and worked with powerful people in Congress to get the wilderness designation. In 1968, Congress designated the wilderness area of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge according to the Wilderness Act of 1964. This designation protected the refuge forever.
Many, many people worked to preserve Great Swamp by giving money, writing letters of support, and more, and Helen Fenske did not win the battle by herself. However, without her tireless dedication to preserving this land, it may never have happened.
Her passion for conservation did not stop with the creation of the Great Swamp Refuge. New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean appointed Fenske as assistant commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, where she continued to fight for conservation.
Governor Kean said, “It is hard to imagine an environmental fight that Helen didn’t take on.” She fought to save Sunfish Pond at the Delaware Water Gap from becoming a power plant; she promoted the creation of Wallkill River and Cape May national wildlife refuges, and she worked for “Green Acres” programs and wetland protection.
When Fenske retired, she moved to New Hampshire where she continued to rally to protect natural areas from development. She is remembered as a conservationist that did all she could do to protect the environment.
Contributed by Laura Nally of the Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.