Community News

Documentary brings Great Swamp battle back to life
11/10/2016 Volume XLIX, No. 44

The birth of New Jersey’s environmental movement began with a news scoop.

On Dec. 3 1959, folks living near the Great Swamp in Morris County were stunned to see a front page Newark Evening News story revealing the Port Authority’s plan to build a new airport in the marshes, wetlands, meadows and woods of the Great Swamp.

Residents quickly mobilized to fight the “jetport.” One grassroots group quietly bought up private land in the swamp for preservation, while a second concentrated on rebutting the Port Authority’s justification. Strategies were plotted at kitchen tables … and carried out at high-level meetings in Trenton and Washington, D.C.

The fight to save the swamp lasted the better part of a decade, officially ending in September 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation placing the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the national wilderness system.

Fifty-seven years after that first fateful newspaper headline, most of the key players in the battle to save the Great Swamp are gone and memories of their contributions are fading. Visitors to the refuge are unaware of how close this tranquil landscape came to becoming an airport!

Luckily, today the story is being retold in a new documentary, “Saving the Great Swamp: Battle to Defeat the Jetport,” by award-winning filmmaker Scott Morris and co-producer Larry Fast, both of whom live near the swamp. The documentary will premiere on Saturday, Dec. 3 – exactly 57 years to the day after the Port Authority’s plans were leaked.

Larry, who lives in Meyersville, believes the battle of the Great Swamp represents “the birth of the modern environmental movement” in New Jersey and beyond.

In late 1959, he explained, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had yet to be published, Earth Day didn’t exist, and major legislation like the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were years in the future. There was no roadmap on how to how to defeat such an environmentally damaging proposal. The roadmap was drawn by the Great Swamp defenders.

“The people in our story were pioneers,” he said. “They were well ahead of the movement.”

The documentary is based on meticulous research done by Cam Cavanaugh, author of the 1978 book, “Saving the Great Swamp.”

Larry said that when he first read the book, he thought it would make a terrific documentary. But he didn’t pursue it until the spring of 2014, when he and his wife Phyllis were inspired by a presentation on the Great Swamp by Harding Township Mayor Nic Platt.

They approached Mayor Platt - a descendent of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, the money behind many of the early land purchases – with their idea.  Platt was enthusiastic and helped Fast and Morris line up philanthropic support.

The resulting a one-hour documentary incorporates archival photos, old television footage and on-camera interviews of people connected to the Great Swamp battle. Cavanaugh and Platt were interviewed, as was Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, whose late father Peter fought the Port Authority proposal as a congressman.

Also interviewed were the children of the late Helen Fenske, the Green Village housewife who founded the Great Swamp Committee, which later evolved into New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Another interview subject was Lillie DeBevoise, one of the many dedicated airport opponents who spent countless hours folding brochures, stuffing envelopes, making phone calls and rallying community support. She and her husband, Charlie, were among the other founders of the Great Swamp Committee, and NJ Conservation Foundation. Lillie, a lifelong conservationist, passed away earlier this year.

“It’s a very complex weave of a story,” said Fast. “Squeezing it all into one hour wasn’t easy.”  Fast and Morris will screen the documentary locally, and hope to convince PBS, the Smithsonian or another like-minded organization to broadcast it.

“Saving the Great Swamp” is a story well worth recounting, and this state we’re in is fortunate that the story is being retold in this new film. The premiere at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center is sold out, but look for other local screenings in the coming months.

And if you haven’t yet been, make sure you visit the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and experience its beauty for yourself. For information and maps, go to

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation website at or contact me at


New Jersey's 'marl' pits yield dinosaur discoveries

Vernal pools: Now you see 'em, now you don't

State targets illegal dumpers in parks and forests

Former governors and elected leaders stand up for environment

Join CSAs to support local farms, save money, eat better

Weather extremes may be New Jersey's new normal

Bald eagles and ospreys rebound in New Jersey

Pine Barrens prescribed fires: A renewal force

Take a walk on the bottom of the sea!

Energy efficiency saves money and land - and creates jobs!

The Pines of March

Trees are more social than you think!

New Jersey's geological 'layer cake'

Keeping the 'great' in Paterson's Great Falls

Some good news!

Take action to defend and protect land and water

Interested in ecology? Become a Rutgers Environmental Steward

2016 wins and losses for New Jersey's land and water

Kick off a healthy New Year with First Day hike

Energy infrastructure: the new sprawl

Two great books for connecting kids with nature

Why do some trees stay green while others lose their leaves?

Melting ice, rising seas, hotter planet

Our forests never sleep, even in winter!

Documentary brings Great Swamp battle back to life

Defending the land they loved

Four years after Sandy, rising sea levels predicted

New Jersey: Small state, big diversity

10 great natural areas for enjoying fall colors

Removing obsolete dams brings rivers back to life

Humpback whales a welcome sight off NJ coast

NJ wine industry boosts agritourism

For good health, bathe in a forest!

Let's NOT make a deal!

New Jersey's spectacular waterfalls

Urban trees boost health and land values

Blue Acres: A win-win for open space, owners of flooded homes

Get mosquitos to buzz off - naturally!

Flawed pipeline approval process needs reforms

Speak out for our Atlantic Ocean and coast!

Help Pokemon Go lead into outdoors and nature

NJ 4th in peaches; don't miss out on peach season!

Water, water everywhere - keep it safe to drink!

Growing beer in the Garden State

Celebrate NJ's Revolutionary War parks and open spaces on July 4

Override Governor's veto of open space bill

Taming the wild blueberry 100 years ago

Celebrate and take action during National Pollinator Week

Get on the Circuit for National Trails Day

New tax deduction would give boost to NJ non-profits


April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011