Located on a 240-acre tract of land in Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, New Jersey, the School of Conservation is our nation’s oldest and largest environmental education center. NJSOC has a long and celebrated history, beginning in 1949 when officials from the Department of Higher Education, college presidents, the Department of Conservation and Economic Development, politicians, and conservationists worked together to realize the promise of a world-class outdoor education center in an abandoned CCC camp. It played a key role in the development of the environmental education movement, and has served as a model for environmental centers throughout the world. The SOC’s resident programs and summer camps have served more than 400,000 students, teachers, masters and doctoral candidates, faculty and visiting professionals from every walk of life through the nearly 40,000 workshops and environmental education programs offered at the SOC over its 71-year history.
In 1981, Governor Brendan Byrne signed legislation designating that the New Jersey School of Conservation shall be used in perpetuity as a school for environmental field study under the direction of the Board of Trustees of Montclair State College. The 1981 law earmarked state funds to annually be granted to Montclair State College expressly to support the operations of NJSOC … in perpetuity. (N.J.S.A. 18A:64I-1). On September 1, 2020, Montclair State closed the School of Conservation and returned management responsibilities for the facility to its owner, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The Friends of NJSOC are currently in negotiations with NJDEP to secure an interim management agreement for the site until a new, permanent manager is named. The Friends expect to reopen NJSOC for day programs operating under accepted COVID-19 protocols in Spring 2021.
There has always been something about the School of Conservation that inspires creativity, collaboration, and a special kind of magic that brings people together for the greater good. As former Director Dr. John J. Kirk noted on the School’s 50th anniversary:
“The School of Conservation is more than a unique educational facility, it is more than its fifty-seven buildings, sparkling lake, exciting trout streams, lush forests and rolling hills. The New Jersey School of Conservation is all of these, but much more; for it is a spirit, a dream, and a hope for the future that tends to enrich the lives of all who are privileged to participate in its many varied programs. May it always be thus.”
In October 2019, the NJ School of Conservation celebrated its 70th anniversary. The Friends of NJSOC prepared a history of the School.
The School of Conservation had its origins in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1934, the CCC moved onto the site of what is now known as Camp Sequoya, cleared some of the land, built an earthen dam across a cornfield and a mountain stream (Springbrook), and created an 11.3-acre pond now known as Lake Wapalanne. Eventually, two camps were built on the site to house the CCC workers, administrators, and support staff:
This camp was built just east of what is now known as the ‘corral’ on the Camp Sequoya campus. It consisted of five barracks lined up parallel to one another; mess hall, recreation, and administration buildings; and a variety of support/infrastructure buildings (wash house, latrine, infirmary, storage, shop, State and Army garages, gas supply tank, and well pump/generator housing). With the exception of the pump house and possibly the infirmary—whose location coincides very closely to what is now the Nature Center—all of the buildings from Camp S-57 were demolished following the formal establishment of the New Jersey School of Conservation. Not even foundations for those buildings exist.
Camp S-71—presumably built between 1935 and 1936 —was somewhat of a clone of Camp 57, with duplicates of most of its buildings. But although it had its own generator housing, it did not have a separate well pump, suggesting that both camps probably depended on water from the pump on the S-57 site. Conversely, two buildings on the S-71 site appear to have served as living quarters—for both camps—for the Army staff and the Forestry staff. Interestingly, six (6) of the original CCC buildings still exist, although most of them have been significantly altered and repurposed over the years. Two of the most significant ‘change-overs’ have been the Long House dining hall (which originally was a CCC recreation building) and Minisi Lodge which originated as a mess hall; evolved into a dormitory during SOC years, and is currently the SOC maintenance shop.
During the early years of the New Jersey School of Conservation, it was not uncommon for a former CCC resident of the ‘Skellinger Camp’ to return with his family to show them what he had built with his hands. There was an inherent pride in both voice and carriage as he reflected back. We are equally proud of our CCC heritage.
In the 1940’s, the old CCC camp in Stokes Forest had lain fallow for a number of years, and was in danger of being razed by bulldozers. However, a group of prominent proponents of outdoor education, including DeAlton Partridge, L.B. Sharp, Luther Lindenmuth, Jules Marron, and local Senator Alfred Littell, from Franklin, NJ, collaborated on the concept of using the site as a field campus for the six New Jersey state colleges involved in teacher education: Glassboro, Jersey City, Montclair, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton. They took their case for an outdoor conservation school to the State capitol. L.B. Sharp was a champion for decentralized camping; Luther Lindenmuth was New Jersey’s Principal Forester; Jules Marron, Supervisor of Public Relations for the Department of Conservation and Economic Development; and Senator Littell wanted to see an outdoor school become a reality in Sussex County.
And so it was that in 1949, the New Jersey State Board of Education, with the approval of Governor Alfred Driscoll, formally established the New Jersey State School of Conservation at the Skellinger Group Camp site. The buildings and grounds, lying within Stokes Forest, were to be maintained by the New Jersey Department of Conservation and Economic Development, making it a cooperative effort between two prominent State agencies.
An agreement was signed by the commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development, Charles Erdman, Jr. on April 19, 1949. New Jersey Commissioner of Education, John Bossart, who was to delegate administration of SOC to Montclair State that same year, approved the document. The document stated:
“In order to provide for the maintenance and operation of a Conservation Education Center in the field, the Department of Conservation and Economic development will put at the disposal of the Department of Education the Wapalanne Camp.”
In 1934, the State Department of Conservation and Economic Development collaborated with the Civilian Conservation Corps program and decided that a ‘public group camp’ was needed in Stokes Forest. Bob Marshall of the U.S. Forest Service was largely responsible for instituting this concept in the late 1920’s. It was due to this interest in forest recreation by the Division of Forestry in the Department of Conservation and Economic Development that the group camp became a CCC project and, hence, a future site for the School of Conservation.
And so, in 1936, after the CCC had established its own two camps (Nos. 57 and 71) on what is now known as the Sequoya Campus, the CCC constructed a group camp known as the Skellenger Group Camp for inner city children. The camp was located on the east facing slope of what is now known as the Wapalanne Campus. The camp consisted of twelve cabins, spaced around a loop road; a staff residence building (Staff Lodge); a dining/recreation building (Big Timbers); a program building (Kittatinny Hall); and an infirmary and administration building. In contrast to many of the CCC buildings on the Sequoya Campus—which were dismantled/razed—most of the buildings the CCC built for the original Group camp on the Wapalanne Campus still exist (having, of course, been renovated and/or refurbished over the years). These buildings would become the base of SOC’s premier children’s summer camp, Camp Wapalanne.
The Camp Wapalanne summer program followed closely on the heels of the founding of the School of Conservation in 1949. The first camp session was held in 1950 and was attended by 30 campers. De Alton Partridge, director of SOC at the time, hired Marie Kuhnen to be the director of the new camp, a position she held during the summers of 1950 to 1952. Dr. Kuhnen went on to have a life-long relationship with the School of Conservation as a professor and Biology Department Chair at Montclair State.
Camp Wapalanne in the early 1950s was both a co-educational experience for students between the ages of 11 and 18, and a demonstration program for college students. Most counselors were students from New Jersey state colleges. They attended a one-week pre-camp training session, followed by a three-week summer camp program. The main educational goal of the program was to help campers live, learn, and practice conservation as a way of life.
The demonstration camp incorporated elements of the decentralized camping philosophy championed by L. B. Sharp, a pioneer in the camping movement and mentor to SOC director, De Alton Partridge. Following this model, the camp consisted of several small campsites where campers lived in teepees, handmade shelters, or covered wagons with counselors who were completely responsible for planning and directing their own activities. Decentralized camping was reserved as a demonstration camp project for in-service teachers during the last two weeks of camp. These experienced campers planned camping and hiking trips to Tillman’s Ravine, canoe trips on the Delaware River, and trips to a campsite west of the Delaware River, during which they prepared 3 meals a day. Younger campers (8 -12 year olds) used the numbered cabins on the hill behind the School’s main office.
Dr. John J. Kirk, the fifth director of the School, brought a new philosophical approach in 1963. Government regulations for camp facilities had already changed in many other states, and decentralized camping did not meet current safety standards. All campers would have a cabin or unit as a “home base”, but would be encouraged to use the decentralized facilities— covered wagons, teepees, and shelters— on a scheduled basis. The covered wagons scattered around the school’s property were relocated to Frontier Town, across the street from the original climbing wall. Wooden domes designed by maintenance supervisor Millard van Dien at Kirk’s request were built to house the Outpost Units, for campers aged 13-16 (the age was later dropped to 14 in the early 1970s).
In 1965, Kirk instituted a staffing model incorporating a core of counselors specializing in specific subject areas— such as archery, riflery, boating, crafts, waterfront, and natural sciences. These counselors would work with all campers in their field of expertise rather than being assigned to one unit or cabin group. Cabin and Unit counselors would deliver a balanced program with one counselor specializing in Environmental Science and the other in Outdoor Recreation. The focus of the camp shifted from camping education to the cultivation of a reverence for life through an ecological exploration of the interdependence of living things— a theme which continues to be expressed in the SOC’s philosophy to the present day.
The length of camp sessions was increased to 4 weeks in 1966, with counselors reporting for a one-week pre-camp training beforehand. Camp Wapalanne enrollment peaked in 1967. The program continued, with only minor changes, until 1985 when low enrollment, likely due to societal and family changes, made it no longer economically viable.
Dr. DeAlton Partridge was Director of Graduate Studies at Montclair State College when the concept of a field campus achieved fruition. He was one of a growing number of educators who had witnessed the value of the school camping and outdoor education movements initiated by Lloyd B. Sharp and his colleagues at the famous National Camp, located at Lake Mashapicong in the northwestern corner of the State. Since the programs at National Camp were geared primarily to young and adult sectors of the State’s population, Dr. Partridge felt it would be important to establish a similar institution which served pre-service teachers at the undergraduate level.
Later, as the President of Montclair State Teachers College, Partridge continued to oversee the development of Outdoor Education and Conservation programs that focused on curriculum enrichment and teacher preparation. As more programs were developed, administrators and faculty members at the other five state colleges—Glassboro, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton—became intrigued with the potential of this new college program at Montclair. In 1957, 10 students and one faculty member from each of these state colleges attended a 5-day pilot program at the School of Conservation initiated by the 6 state college presidents. Deemed a success, the week-long program became a graduation requirement for all sophomore students, regardless of their major. During the 1950’s, college courses and teacher workshops conducted at the School boasted some of the most distinguished Outdoor Education and Conservation Education leaders that the United States has ever produced. Approximately 5,000 students a year studied at SOC before college requirements changed and the program ended in 1967. Between 1949 and 1999, over 50 different college courses were offered at NJSOC.
Teacher training has always been part of SOC’s mission. Dr. E. De Alton Partridge, SOC’s first director, recognized the need for teachers to gain firsthand knowledge about the natural environment. He initiated the first field courses for teachers in 1949. Formal Teacher Training Workshops were introduced by Dr. John J. Kirk in 1969. In 1972, one-day workshops were opened to school district staff. SOC’s role in teacher training continued to evolve and will remain an important part of its future programs.
In 1967, the New Jersey State Legislature approved legislation that would separate higher education from elementary and secondary education, thus forming the State Department of Higher Education. This structure provided more autonomous roles for the School of Conservation and the six state colleges then in existence. As a result, the state colleges of New Jersey shifted from their previously exclusive emphasis on teacher preparation to become multi-faceted institutes of higher learning and 4 of the 6 state colleges chose to eliminate the requirement for all students to attend the School of Conservation.
Program participation by college students at the School of Conservation dropped from 3,079 to 815 in one year. SOC’s staff accommodated for this loss by shifting the program’s emphasis to serve elementary school students, with attendance by that group soaring from 1,198 to 3,681 participants in the same year that college attendance crashed.
NJSOC’s environmental education goal for elementary students, both in its year-round program and summer camps, is to foster in a student the ability to take concepts learned at the School and apply them to their own bioregion. Its multidisciplinary approach to environmental education has been a model for field centers worldwide. The importance of environmental literacy—knowledge of ecological systems and humankind’s place within those systems—and the creation of an environmental ethic, or a sense of responsibility to the earth, are principal concepts integrated into the curriculum through experiential learning, providing human-nature interactions and experiences. This approach contributes to the development of new attitudes and values regarding mankind and the relationship to the natural environment.
School groups visiting SOC developed their own schedule of classes in advance, choosing from a vast array of offerings to be taught by SOC staff with assistance from the visiting elementary school teachers. Classes were selected from choices within four curricular areas of emphasis:
In the Natural Sciences area, classes were added to give students a greater exposure to the natural history of Stokes State Forest. These classes included ornithology, herpetology, entomology and winter ecology. Additionally, classes focused on field lessons related to New Jersey environmental issues and social concerns of the day.
Social Sciences and Humanities
Social Studies and Humanities were viewed as a means to investigate and examine human beings in the context of their communities—family, cultural, and political realms. It was believed that knowledge gained through these investigations would contribute to the development of understanding humankind’s place within and responsibility toward the natural environment.
The goal of the Outdoor Pursuits program was to teach outdoor skills and instill positive actions towards others and the environment. The three content areas included Wilderness Education including orienteering, Nordic skiing and survival training; Adventure Challenge emphasizing team building and enhanced confidence, including climbing wall and confidence course; and Outdoor Recreation including boating, ice skating, archery and non-competitive games.
At the time of its closing in the spring of 2020, the School of Conservation was serving school groups from 15 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, some of whom had been returning for 40 years, and others who traveled over 2 hours by bus to access a program for their students available nowhere else in the state. In a time when the need for environmentally-conscious problem solvers is needed more than ever, New Jersey is fortunate to have several generations of residents who have benefited from the powerful, memorable learning experience delivered as a result of SOC’s philosophy of discovery through field study.
Under Dr. Bill Thomas’s directorship (2002-2020), the School added a new role to the programs it has been known for. NJSOC became a member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations, and gained recognition as a field research station. Over the years a number of scientists have used the 240-acre campus and the surrounding 32,000 acres of Stokes State Forest and High Point State Park to conduct research. The school sits on one of the largest undeveloped tracts in New Jersey and is, therefore, a unique setting for environmental science research and education in the nation’s most densely populated state. In recent years, an increased focus on University research has brought more professors and students to the school for fieldwork and research.
Important research projects in ecology involving birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks, insects and plants have based their operations at NJSOC. The diverse habitats of the school have enabled graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and university faculty members to carry out significant research in ecology, conservation, animal behavior, systematics, biological diversity and evolutionary biology.
Researchers affiliated with the School have also worked on research projects closely associated with the sustainable wildlife programs at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Over 40 published research projects have originated at NJSOC.