SANDYSTON, N.J. – Marking a major milestone in the continued revitalization of the historic New Jersey School of Conservation, the non-profit charged with managing the school has signed a 20-year lease with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
This agreement between the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation and the state paves the way to fully resume educational programs that have served tens of thousands of students from across the state since the school first opened in 1949 — but also highlights the need for continued investment to address a long-term threat to the school’s future.
The Friends, which were founded to save the school after it was closed in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, hailed the signing of the agreement as the next step to strengthen the school and prepare it to meet the state’s educational need for generations to come. The lease builds off legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Smith and Assemblyman John McKeon that was signed into law late last year that designated the Friends as the managers of the school.
“The Friends of NJSOC are extremely grateful to Governor Murphy, the state Legislature, especially Assemblyman John McKean and Senator Bob Smith, and Commissioner Shawn LaTourette and his DEP team for making this historic moment possible,” said Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends of NJSOC. “With the signing of this 20 year lease, complemented by the legislation assigning the Friends of NJSOC as the school’s managers, the state is acknowledging the NJSOC as a valuable environmental education asset and is committing to its perpetuation as an educational resource for New Jersey. The Friends stand ready to fulfill the responsibility that the State has given us by offering quality environmental education programming that is inclusive of all the people of New Jersey.”
“DEP is proud to partner with the New Jersey School of Conservation to continue providing science-based education to the next generation of environmental stewards,” Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said. “In the face of our changing climate, it is more important than ever that we equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary so that they, too, one day will ensure the generations behind them understand why we must do everything possible to ensure the conservation and protection of our natural environment.”
While the Friends have been operating limited educational programs at the school, located in Stokes State Forest near the Delaware Water Gap, since 2021, this long-term agreement paves the way for the resumption of the school’s full range of educational activities, particularly overnight stays for students and researchers.
Generations of students have experienced transformational experiences at the school, which pioneered outdoor education with a series of two-day trips. The lease allows for the full resumption of those multi-day experiences, which will also allow children from far-flung areas of New Jersey to utilize the school.
At the same time, allowing researchers to stay at the school for extended periods will aid in the gathering of data to assist scientists studying one of New Jersey’s most sensitive ecological treasures. The Friends will continue to build a consortium of partners from universities and colleges across the state to take advantage of the NJ SOC site for research opportunities.
“At a time when our state and our planet are facing the existential threat posed by climate change, it is essential that the New Jersey School of Conservation remain a resource to arm the next generation of students with the tools they need to understand and combat this threat even as it endows them with an understanding of the importance of conserving our natural world,” said Ed Potosnak, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “We are proud to stand with stakeholders from across New Jersey in support of the school and are exciting to be helping to write a new chapter for this storied institution.”
In addition to resuming overnight stays, the lease agreement also will make it easier to carry out critical repairs to the school’s facilities, which are in a state of disrepair after decades of under-investment.
“The NJ School of Conservation is an environmental and education oasis tucked into the rolling hills of Stokes State Forest. But its future was tenuous through the pandemic after the school was left in the lurch with the sudden decision by Montclair State to pull funding in the early days of the pandemic,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. “Today’s signing of the NJDEP lease for the NJ School of Conservation will solidify the relationship with the School’s most steadfast champion – the Friends of the NJ School of Conservation. Environment New Jersey thanks the amazing leadership of the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation, the NJDEP and legislative co-sponsors Sen. Bob Smith and Governor Dick Codey. The NJ School of Conservation is in good hands for the future, and the Friends have the vision to grow the School to be the preeminent center for environmental education in the state.”
“Congratulations to the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation on the signing of the 20-year lease for the SOC and thanks to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the NJ Legislature for working with the Friends to insure the continued operation of this historic New Jersey institution. As a former student at the SOC, I know how valuable exposure to the natural world is for young people. The SOC provides a unique place for students and teachers from all other NJ to experience nature and learn how important protecting the environment is for our future.” said Dennis Toft, Chair of Environmental Law at CSG. “Three years ago, when it looked like the SOC would be closed for good, no one thought that the SOC would survive. The lease signing is proof of the power of a dedicated group of passionate individuals who set out to do the right thing. I was glad to play a small part in the effort.”
“We are thrilled to support and work with the New Jersey School of Conservation as it embraces this opportunity to grow into its full potential and become the lead environmental education organization in New Jersey. A new day is dawning, and we are all winners!” said Julia Somers, Executive Director, New Jersey Highlands Coalition
“The NJ School of Conservation nurtured the roots of environmental education in this nation and operates this country’s oldest nature center right here in New Jersey. NJ SOC, under the inspiring leadership of the Friends of NJSOC, is now well positioned to lead the way on environmental education at a time when we need it most. NJSOC provides unparalleled opportunities for this and the next generation to reconnect with the magic and wonder of our natural world and each other,” said Jennifer M. Coffey, Executive Director, ANJEC.
However, a serious potential threat to the school’s future was also identified as a part of lease negotiations.
A historic dam located on the campus needs significant upgrades to meet safety standards. The lease agreements lays out a process for the Friends and DEP to develop a mitigation plan for the structure, which dates to 1932 and was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The dam supports a lake located at the very center of the school that is critical to environmental and recreational activities at the site.
While the exact cost of repairs is not yet known, the Friends anticipate needing to raise millions of dollars to bring the dam back up to a state of good repair.
“While we are excited that this lease agreement heralds a new day for the School of Conservation, we are also aware of the significant challenge posed by the aging dam on our campus,” Kirk Pflugh said. “The same broad-ranging effort that brought the school back from the brink and set it on the path to success will be necessary to address this threat to our future. We look forward to working with Governor Murphy, the DEP, partners in the Legislature and environmentalists across New Jersey to secure the resources necessary to protect the school for years to come.”