The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge stretches across southern Morris County, from Chatham to Basking Ridge, and is just 26 miles from New York City. Countless species make their homes within its more than 7,700 acres, and hundreds of volunteers are partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make it more accessible for years to come. Its miles of trails include boardwalks that make it possible to hike across the watery ground and see wild creatures up close.
Viewers will get an in-depth view of the site when Treasures of New Jersey: The Great Swamp airs on June 29 at 8:30 p.m. on NJ PBS (check local listings), narrated by former NJ Spotlight News correspondent, WNYC Morning Edition host, and New Jersey native, Michael Hill. Watch a trailer here. Watch the full episode here.
The history of the Great Swamp intertwines geology, biology and human culture. The water basin it covers formed about 25 thousand years ago as the Wisconsin glacier was melting. It left behind the prehistoric Lake Passaic, which covered 300 square miles. Beginning at least 12,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples including the Lenape and their ancestors used the Great Swamp for hunting, fishing and to grow food.
In modern times, the Great Swamp came under political and public scrutiny when it was targeted as a site for a jetport in the 1950’s. Environmentalists and community members raised one million dollars to purchase 3,000 acres here to block that development and give the land to the federal government. In 1968, Congress designated the eastern half of the refuge as the first national wilderness area on Department of Interior lands.
In the decades that followed, volunteers from the organization Friends of Great Swamp and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff have worked together to make the refuge a success. It is a critical stopover area for migratory birds and is called home to a wide variety of species including turtles, fox, owls and amphibians. The western half of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is carefully managed to create and maintain habitat that might otherwise have vanished.
The Friends, working with other volunteer and corporate organizations, have built and extended trails that allow people into and across the swamp’s often muddy terrain. The trails are one of the Great Swamp’s biggest volunteer projects and part of a long legacy of volunteer action here, one that includes making the refuge accessible to all and a place of learning and inspiration for all ages.
Such accessibility is a change in philosophy from traditional thinking. Wildlife Refuge Specialist Jared Green explains in the film, “Wildlife refuges were a place that were kind of closed off. They were meant strictly for wildlife protection. We’ve realized in recent years (that) we need to make people aware of our national wildlife refuges so that they can develop an appreciation for the refuges, come out and enjoy them in whichever way that they choose.”
One example of that accessibility is welcoming young people to the refuge, many of whom go there to experience wilderness for the first time in their lives.
“One of my favorite parts of my job,” Green says in the film, “is doing our environmental education and outreach work with urban youth.”