The Friends of NJSOC's Access Agreement with NJDEP
If NJSOC is open, why is the gate still locked?
The School of Conservation and the 240 acres it occupies belong to the NJ Division of Environmental Protection. Since 1981, the School had been managed by Montclair State University through a relationship signed into law by Governor Brendan Byrne. The legislation stated that “The 240 acre tract of land known as the New Jersey School of Conservation, located in Stokes State Forest, Sussex County, New Jersey, together with all the buildings thereon, and under the management and control of the Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation in the Department of Environmental Protection, shall be used in perpetuity as a school for environmental field study under the direction of the Board of Trustees of Montclair State College.” An annual appropriation was established, separate from and in addition to the regular formula support provided to the college, for the expenses of NJSOC’s educational program and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds.
In July 2020, Montclair State University officially closed the School of Conservation and returned the responsibility for its management to its owner, NJDEP. On April 1, 2021, after several months of negotiation, NJDEP signed an interim management agreement for NJSOC with the Friends of NJSOC. While the agreement makes it possible to reopen NJSOC, it is limited in scope as explained below. Nevertheless, it represents a victory for the residents of New Jersey and a first step in the preservation and renewal of a historical and significant—and well-loved– educational resource.
The agreement gives the Friends access to 135 of SOC’s 240 acres for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a presence onsite for security purposes, assisting with identification of maintenance needs, and keeping the School in the public eye by providing appropriate programming. It charges the Friends with conducting property checks twice a week and performing an inventory of all tools, equipment and supplies on the site within 90 days of the effective date. It allows for hosting day-long programs, work sessions, courses, permitted research, service projects, fundraising efforts and open houses, and the development of virtual course content.
Five program events are permitted per month. Written requests for approval of programs must be submitted to NJDEP 45 days in advance, and compliance with COVID-19 protocols are required. Currently, no indoor use of buildings is permitted—even for day programs. This is a COVID restriction that we hope will be lifted soon. No overnight programming is permitted. Any excess program income will be applied towards DEP’s expenses including capital, utilities, equipment or staff time expenses.
Research projects are permitted, subject to requesting approval 4 weeks in advance and do not allow the use of any buildings or any equipment to be stored on the property. Research project approvals will expire on December 31st of the year approval is granted.
The access agreement was signed on April 1, 2021 and is effective through December 31, 2021. It may be renewed for no more than two additional terms. There will be a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by NJDEP at some point, so this is considered an interim agreement. The RFP process will result in the selection of a permanent manager for NJSOC.
An understanding of the allowances and limitations of the access agreement is helpful to understanding the types of programs that can and cannot be offered by the Friends. For instance, children’s summer camps, a program staple at NJSOC since its opening in 1949, are beyond the scope of this agreement. We are only permitted to be onsite when there is a program or event that has been approved by NJDEP in advance, so careful planning is necessary. It’s also useful to know that there is currently no budget to operate the School. Montclair State’s divestment of NJSOC was unexpected; neither NJDEP nor the Friends were prepared to take on the expenses of the School’s operations. Presently, NJDEP is covering the costs of basic services and maintenance. The Friends will be contributing any excess program income towards these costs. Under the interim management agreement, the Friends will be operating NJSOC with an administration and program leadership comprised entirely of volunteers.
The School’s success in the immediate future will continue to be aided by the goodwill of its many friends. Please feel free to contact the Friends of NJSOC at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or would like to help in some way.