Frelinghuysens: from landed gentry to protectors of the land

By Amanda Peterka | 07/28/2015 07:33 AM EDT

When top Obama administration officials, members of Congress and conservation leaders gathered last fall at a tiny parcel of land in the middle of New Jersey on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, many speakers acknowledged that it was an unlikely place to celebrate the nation’s seminal wilderness law.

The late Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) helped create the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the 1960s.

The late Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) helped create the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

When top Obama administration officials, members of Congress and conservation leaders gathered last fall at a tiny parcel of land in the middle of New Jersey on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, many speakers acknowledged that it was an unlikely place to celebrate the nation’s seminal wilderness law.

"It’s probably not the place people anticipate when we talk about wilderness — New Jersey, 26 miles away from Times Square," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on the sunny September day.

But Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was actually the first wilderness designated by the Department of the Interior after passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The story of the refuge’s creation is a classic in the annals of New Jersey history, a David-versus-Goliath tale of a local group of citizens and their lawmakers fighting plans by the powerful Port Authority of New York to turn the area into the world’s largest airport.


And the person whose political will led to its creation — the late Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) — is still exerting an influence on conservation in a state that’s known outside its borders more for overcrowding than for natural vistas and wildlife.

Frelinghuysen’s son, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R), has taken over the duty of protecting the swamp, which nearly 250 species of birds either call home or pass through along migration routes.

Rodney Frelinghuysen also sponsored the Highlands Conservation Act more than a decade ago, despite opposition from his colleagues in the West, to purchase lands in a four-state region including New Jersey that help provide clean drinking water for millions of people. He has since successfully directed funding toward the program through the annual congressional appropriations process, using his position as a high-ranking GOP appropriator to his advantage.

Frelinghuysen frequently returns to New Jersey to speak at conservation events, often invoking the memory of his father.

Frederick Frelinghuysen
Frederick Frelinghuysen, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, was a senator from New Jersey in the 1790s. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

"My father and others, the vast majority of them citizens, rallied to the cause of defeating the airport proposal and saving the Great Swamp despite the Port Authority’s unrelenting opposition," Frelinghuysen told the audience at the anniversary event. "They stuck to it until they won."

The Frelinghuysen dynasty has long dominated New Jersey’s political scene. Since arriving in the United States from Germany in the early 1700s, family members have served as attorney general, the mayor of Newark, candidate for vice president with Henry Clay, president of Rutgers University and secretary of state under President Chester A. Arthur. Since 1793, the family has also produced four U.S. senators and two U.S. representatives, Peter and Rodney the latter.

By the time the Port Authority plans came to light — the result of a leak to a newspaper reporter in December 1960 — Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen owned land near the Great Swamp area in Harding Township.

In a recent interview, Rodney Frelinghuysen described the swamp as "a recharging basin for keeping the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area clean, besides being a refuge for some remarkable species that you would associate with the swamps."

The swamp is a depressed area that contains four types of habitat: woodland forest, marsh, brush-covered swamp and open meadows. The volcanic period of the Triassic period, the formation of glaciers in the ice age and their subsequent melting all contributed to the creation of the unique landscape.

"It’s such a complex amalgamation of uplands and wetlands and streams and forests, and it’s got among the most diverse habitats of any refuge in the entire system," said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and former longtime director of the Great Swamp Watershed Association. "And yet, it’s just this little place."

Watershed moment

In the early 1960s, the Port Authority of New York determined that air traffic was growing rapidly and that the New York City region would soon require a fourth major airport. It proposed to spend $220 million to build a 10,000-acre airport — twice the size of John F. Kennedy International Airport — at the Great Swamp after finding it the only suitable spot for its plans.

"You’re drilled through school that you live in the most densely populated state in the nation, so there have never been any partisan arguments between the Republicans and Democrats about the need to preserve open space," Rodney Frelinghuysen said. "But this was sort of — this was the challenge from New York to New Jersey with the assumption they could do anything they wanted."

The Port Authority’s plans hit the newsstands on Dec. 3, 1960; within two weeks, Peter Frelinghuysen cemented himself at the center of a growing protest movement. One of the runways would end at Frelinghuysen’s property, named "Singing Wood."

According to the book "Saving the Great Swamp," an account written by New Jersey resident Cam Cavanaugh, Frelinghuysen organized a coalition in opposition to the airport, launched letter-writing campaigns, engaged the Federal Aviation Administration and rallied public officials both in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., against the Port Authority’s plans. Congress soon launched an investigation.

"A fourth jetport — it almost happened," Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), whose district borders Frelinghuysen’s, said in September. "If we can personify the opposition in one person, that person is Rodney’s late father, Peter Hood Ballantine Frelinghuysen, member of Congress, first elected in 1952, serving with great distinction, continuing to serve until 1974.

"If it were not for Rodney’s father, this today would be a jetport," Lance said.

The defining moment in the fight against the new airport came when several families agreed to give the North American Wildlife Foundation nearly 1,000 acres of land in the Great Swamp as a gift. The foundation, in turn, agreed to deed the acres over to the Department of the Interior. More families joined as the years passed.

And on Friday, May 29, 1964, the Great Swamp Committee of the North American Wildlife Foundation presented Interior with a gift of 2,600 acres. Then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall flew in from Washington to dedicate the land as the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

"I would call it a watershed moment, excuse the pun," Somers said. "It was the first time — as a matter of fact, it was the only time — that the Port Authority has ever been defeated by citizen action. It saw the emergence of a whole raft of environmental leaders who have gone on to play an important role in protecting New Jersey’s environment."

Back in Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law that same year. And when Interior made its first wilderness proposals under the new law, the Great Swamp was at the top of the list.

"The attractiveness of undisturbed solitude, appreciated by all mankind and so sorely needed in the Middle Atlantic region, will be perpetually protected and enhanced," Johnson said as he signed the law that created the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge Wilderness in 1968 — the first in the nation.

In a 2009 article in the magazine New Jersey Monthly, written two years before he passed away, Peter Frelinghuysen recalled the battle for the swamp. "That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me," he said.

The Great Swamp Committee eventually became the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which still exists. Michele Byers, executive director of the foundation, described Peter as a "very pleasant soft-spoken" person and said that the successful preservation of the swamp was "transformative."

"It was right around the time of the first Earth Day, this whole blossoming of conservation activity all around that time," Byers said. "And then coming together to save the Great Swamp and not have it become another big giant international airport — it was a huge conservation battle."

Lobbying colleagues from the West

Rodney Frelinghuysen was in his mid-teens during the battle for the swamp. He was drafted into the Army and spent the Vietnam War building road supply systems. After returning home from the war in 1971, he worked for the Morris County government and was soon elected to serve as a county freeholder and then a member of the New Jersey General Assembly.

Frelinghuysen was elected to Congress in 1994, beating his Democratic opponent by a margin of 71 percent to 28 percent.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen has been preceded in Congress by generations of Frelinghuysens. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ask conservationists in the Mid-Atlantic region about Rodney Frelinghuysen’s record in Congress, and they’ll say that the father’s quest to save the Great Swamp and its subsequent protection by the federal government left an indelible impact on the son. Though he faces criticism on the national level for a series of anti-environmental votes over the past several years, Rodney Frelinghuysen is New Jersey’s homegrown conservation champion in Congress.

"You couldn’t have picked a better father-son duo to profile in terms of their contributions to conservation through their role in Congress," said Anthony Cucchi, state director of New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the Trust for Public Land. "I think there is a great parallel between Peter Frelinghuysen’s leadership in establishing the Great Swamp and Rodney’s leadership in establishing the federal Highlands Conservation Act. Rodney is literally the reason why the Highlands Conservation Act exists."

Frelinghuysen sponsored the Highlands law in 2004 as a means of preserving the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. Not only are the highlands considered an outdoor recreation hot spot, but 5.4 million people also get all or part of their drinking water from the region.

Like his father, who sought to convince his colleagues in the West that New Jersey land was valuable as a wilderness, Frelinghuysen described having a difficult time persuading Western lawmakers that the Highlands region was worth saving.

"When I embarked on the federal Highlands Conservation Act, I had to do quite a lot of lobbying people who sort of have a quite a different — who are worried about federal land grabs, the cost of maintaining federal property," Frelinghuysen said. "So I put into our bill ‘sales from willing sellers,’ so there wouldn’t be the issue of confrontation, confiscation, and made a case for a special line item in the Interior budget, which is still there, and I continue to work to fund it."

The law is funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Each year, governors of the four states submit a list of priorities to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which decides where to allocate appropriations. Funding goes toward acquiring land in the Highlands region; one way is through adding parcels to existing state forests.

It’s the only federal program where funds are directed to a specific region for the purpose of purchasing land for conservation reasons.

Since passage of the bill, Frelinghuysen has leveraged his position as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee to channel funding toward the program. This Congress, he sits on the Energy and Water Development, Homeland Security, and Defense Appropriations subcommittees; he is currently chairman of the latter. Last Congress, he served as chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

"The thing with Rodney that’s been really good is that he’s a fairly high-ranking member of the Republican side of Congress, and that’s been really helpful because that particular party across the nation has not been very strong on land preservation," Byers said.

According to Mark Zakutansky, Mid-Atlantic policy manager of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the government has invested $17.25 million in conserving land in the Highlands region since the program’s inception; it has leveraged more than $34 million in private matching funds. For fiscal 2015, Congress appropriated $3 million of the LWCF’s funds for land acquisition under the program.

The GOP’s fiscal 2016 spending plan for Interior and U.S. EPA this Congress again would provide $3 million.

Actual appropriations are less than what the original Highlands Conservation Act authorized, but backers say that’s because Congress has provided reduced funding for the LWCF.

Through the use of earmarks — of which Frelinghuysen is a staunch defender — the congressman has also added to the Great Swamp. The refuge is 7,768 acres; when nearby county holdings are added, the area measures about 10,000 acres.

"When people look at Congress and what they do — and some did not do the right thing with congressional earmarks — this is one that’s something you can look at and be proud of," Frelinghuysen said.

‘Willing to put partisan issues aside’

Despite Frelinghuysen’s reputation at the local level for being a conservation champion, national environmental groups have dinged him recently for several votes that they consider anti-environment.

The congressman’s ranking by the League of Conservation Voters has plummeted from 70 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2014. According to the league, the drop represents votes against efforts to address climate change and water pollution and votes in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Even Frelinghuysen’s strongest defenders in New Jersey’s conservation community acknowledge that he’s been weaker on the national level, and three Republican colleagues from the Garden State — Lance and Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Christopher Smith — often rank higher on the LCV scorecard.

"There’s land preservation, which is getting money to buy land permanently to preserve it, and that’s where he’s strong," said Byers of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "But other environmental issues that deal with climate change and the EPA regulations, air quality, all the other various programs — he tends to go more with the mainstream Republican Party."

Still, Frelinghuysen has publicly acknowledged that he believes climate change is happening and that humans are a likely factor.

He has continued to vote in favor of land preservation initiatives — both those in the eastern United States and in western states.

"I work in a four-state region. I work with dozens of members of Congress from this region. And Rodney stands out," Zakutansky said. "He stands out because he’s passionate, dedicated, because he cares about his constituents, and he’s willing to put partisan issues aside to make sure that his passion comes through."

Conservation groups have urged him to play a leadership role in the upcoming fight over reauthorization of the LWCF.

Somers of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition said that the past support for conservation is not only personal for Rodney but also politically savvy in the nation’s most densely populated state.

"New Jersey has the most active open space program and has spent more money per resident than any other state in the union in preserving open space," Somers said. "So Rodney knows it’s popular."