Nestled inside Stokes State Forest in New Jersey, about a half-dozen children are setting up insect traps, using vanilla cookies and tuna to see what six-legged creatures they snag.
“Doing science is very easy, you can just go to the dollar store like I did,” Denise Manole, 24, said as she led a class on identifying insects on a spring morning. “It’s just going out and doing it and then having fun and loving what you’re doing. That’s all science is about.”
Manole is a New Jersey Watershed Ambassador with AmeriCorps and is leading one of the handful of workshops at the New Jersey School of Conservation.
The 240-acre school is a rural oasis in the densest state in the U.S. The school is located in Sussex County, the state’s northwestern county, close to the state’s border with Pennsylvania and New York. It features single-story red cabins spread across Stokes State Forest, a peaceful enclave 50 miles west of denser Essex County.
During the pandemic, the school’s management shuttered the campus due to budget constraints until a nonprofit group temporarily reopened it. Now state officials are deciding the school’s fate — and who will run it.
Since it opened in 1949, the school has educated more than 400,000 teachers and students on environmental and conservation studies, according to its supporters. But Montclair State University, which was responsible for managing the school, closed the campus in 2020, saying it couldn’t afford to keep running it.
Former Montclair President Susan Cole said the state transferred management and control of the land to the university in 1981 and included an appropriation of annual state funds. But those state funds dried up 10 years ago, Cole wrote in a letter to lawmakers informing them of the school’s July 2020 closure.
“In an era when both the science of conservation, and the education of future generations about conservation, is critically important, it is a matter of genuine and considerable regret to the university that we can no longer maintain the school, but we simply cannot,” Cole wrote.
Montclair State University handed the keys back to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“[Montclair State] announced they were closing it rather abruptly and without really any warning,” Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation told Gothamist. “It took everyone by surprise.”
Sprung into action
Pflugh said once she heard about the closure, the Friends group sprung into action, petitioning the governor’s office, lawmakers and state officials to let them keep the campus open. It worked.
The DEP gave the Friends permission to provide “limited public programming” and “establish a regular presence at the school for security reasons,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. The Friends reopened the school in April 2021.
“This is our attempt to keep offering programs that we would historically have offered, but in a kind of cliff notes approach,” Pflugh said, adding that she hopes the group gets permanent management. “Sort of the mantra of the school conservation has always been discovery through field study, we are a big proponent of experiential learning.”
Pflugh, whose father served as the school’s director for 38 years, said lawmakers gave the Friends group $1 million to oversee emergency repairs and capital improvements to the 57-building campus. The buildings include a cafeteria, offices, classrooms and cabins for overnight student stays.
In January, the DEP put out a call for proposals from groups interested in managing the school; Hajna said they’re still in the review process. The DEP said three entities submitted proposals, including the Friends group, DiamondPREP — and Montclair State University.
But Montclair State told Gothamist last week it was withdrawing its proposal for the process to proceed “without conflict.”
“We believe that our model will support the development of New Jersey’s green economy while embracing the powerful legacy of the School of Conservation. However, the last thing we want is to shift the focus from the School and its mission,” university spokesman Andrew Mees said in a statement.
“We wish great success to whomever is chosen to lead this important resource, and we will provide any historical information that may help them succeed in its management.”
The DEP did not confirm whether Montclair State officially withdrew from the process or say when the state would select a new manager for the property.
A pending proposal
Two lawmakers have also proposed bills that would transfer the management of the school to the Friends.
Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said the school has so much potential and could serve as a resource for future generations.
“We have the most concrete and pavement of other states per square mile,” he said. At the school “the educating really happens out in the wild … and connecting that up with what is human’s role in preserving this? Whether it’s a day trip or an overnight experience it can be very formative for young people.”
Years of teachers, school-age students, master’s students and doctoral students have attended summer camps, day programs or conducted their field studies here. But these days, the school is mostly empty, with occasional programming like fly fishing lessons for adults, foraging for edible plants or spotting migratory rainforest birds from Central and South America.
At an insect workshop in April, 7-year-old Clara Lovell colored a cutout picture of a grasshopper to camouflage it in some bushes.
“I’ve been hearing the word thorax — the middle of the insect — a lot, so I can actually remember it,” Lovell, 7, said. “Here, my classroom is outside and like in the forest. That’s why I like this place so much, because it teaches me a lot about nature.”
Lovell visited with her grandfather Mike Roche, a former science high school teacher who says he used to bring his students to the School of Conservation in the 1980s and 1990s.
“For more than a dozen years, I would bring classes during the school year to take advantage of the residential program,” he said.
Parent Allison Pohorence said she brought her daughter and niece and nephew after seeing the event on Facebook.
“This place has a lot of history,” she said. “When you go in, you could tell there’s like, happiness in here. There’s like a bunch of maybe happy kids stayed here or something.”