The words "American wilderness" conjure thoughts of Davy Crockett, mountain lions and buffalo. Broad expanses of prairie grass waving in the wind. Deep forests inhabited by rugged outdoors people who've built their own roughly-hewn log cabins.
However, the first officially designated National Wilderness Area in the United States is located in the Morris County hamlet of New Vernon. That would be the eastern half of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, comprising about 3660 acres of marsh, shrub and wetlands forest.
Having traveled the Great Swamp's roads and trails many times over the years, I was recently startled to find a sign announcing as much at a trailhead at the end of Woodland Road. Ivan and I were there to find Rusty blackbirds and had, as is typical only in New Jersey, driven past several houses to get there. Beyond the sign was forest and marsh untouched by humans, but for a small footbridge and blaze markers.
On its face, it seems odd that the first official National Wilderness should be here in New Jersey, rather than in the great untouched spaces of Alaska, Colorado or Arizona. Those states and their neighbors do dominate the roster of more than 750 designated areas, but when you understand the intent of the original Wilderness Act, the rationale for the Great Swamp's vanguard status becomes clear.
Enacted in 1964, when the fight for clean air and water was gaining traction, the statute was intended to protect areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man... land retaining its primeval character and influence." Federally-owned land is eligible for wilderness status if human impact is minimal, the land offers opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation, is large enough to be preserved in an unimpaired condition, and contains ecological or geological value. Naturally, wilderness lands are protected from future development.
If there's any place that could use a good wilderness, it's New Jersey, where rampant population and commercial growth place enormous development pressure on the remaining open spaces. The Great Swamp, which represents remnants of the ancient, glacial Lake Passaic, is a case in point. For many years, it was sparsely developed, its few farms dedicated to the production of salt hay. Many of the surrounding communities were home to large estates, but for the most part, the soft, murky ground of the swamp discouraged any further development within its informal boundaries.
Enter the Port Authority of New York, which apparently never met a wetlands it felt it couldn't tame. In late 1959 the development-minded agency announced plans for the construction, within the marshes of the Great Swamp, of an jetport twice the size of Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International) to support the existing Newark Airport. The community was aghast. Some feared it would wreak havoc on property values and forever change the area's quality of life, while others were driven by the prospect of losing an irreplaceable natural space that had been left largely untouched since the glaciers receded eons ago. On the other side, pro-jetport forces predicted economic ruin for the region if the project were not completed.
Jetport opponents tackled the project from two angles, confronting the state Legislature and Port Authority on one side while pursuing an environmental preservation approach on the other. As the government-facing faction challenged officials in hearings, meetings and the press, conservationists worked behind the scenes to raise funds to secure ownership of wide swaths of land within the region. Their goal: amass the minimum 3000 acres required to persuade the Department of the Interior to declare the Great Swamp a National Wildlife Refuge.
It's a long, involved story (told nicely on the New Jersey Conservation Federation website) with several heroes, but in brief, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was ultimately dedicated on May 29, 1964, the same year the National Wilderness Preservation System was created. Designation as a National Natural Landmark came two years later, and the landmark recognition as a National Wilderness in 1968. A map of the refuge portrays the wilderness area, specifically, as essentially undeveloped, without even a paved road within. Score one for the forces of nature, clean air and clean water.
For the past 50 years, a broad range of mammals, reptiles, insects and more than 240 species of birds have continued to enjoy their homes or breeding spots in the swamp, while the dire predictions for the economy have yet to come true. The surrounding communities remain mostly bucolic in type, though some larger houses have been built on sizable plots of land. It's difficult to imagine what the region would have looked like had the jetport been built: runways and terminals replacing wetlands, two lane roads superseded by multi-lane access highways.
As for the Rusty blackbirds that brought us to the wilderness in the first place: they declined the opportunity to come out for us on our visit. Perhaps they'd retreated far beyond the trail, seeking that solitude the site has been preserved to protect.