Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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An Environmental Education Center in
New Jersey: Two Views

E. DeAlton Partridge

Ernest Partridge

Journal of Environmental Education, Spring, 1982

On October 17, 1999,  The Gadfly presented the first of a series of lectures at the New Jersey School of Conservation, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the School.  (That lecture is here at this site).  The Gadfly's father, Dr. E. DeAlton Partridge (1906-1985), was the Founding Director of the School of Conservation.

Twenty years ago, the future of the School of Conservation was in doubt, prompting state educators, alumni and friends of the School to lobby for its preservation. These efforts bore fruit in 1982 when New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne signed a proclamation establishing the School "in perpetuity."

In recognition of that event the Partridges, pere et fils, published the following two pieces in the Spring, 1982 issue of The Journal of Environmental Education.

A Glimmer of Hope

E. DeAlton Partridge

President Emeritus, Montclair State College (1949-1964)
Founding Director, New Jersey School of Conservation

The Journal of Environmental Education, 13:3 (Spring, 1982)

[In 1982 we received] the splendid news that the New Jersey School of Conservation is ... secure to continue its work "in perpetuity." In a world where he future appears dark for those who are hoping and working for environmental sanity, the action of the New jersey State Legislature to fund the New Jersey School of Conservation in perpetuity truly offers a glimmer of hope. It may be a signal to the rest of the nation, and perhaps even the world, that if people care enough to take action, we may yet be able to preserve this planet for future generations.

Those familiar with the history of New Jersey's funding of public education can well appreciate the significance of this action of the legislature regarding the School of Conservation. For decades, up to the 1950s, New Jersey, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation, was among the lowest in per capita expenditures for higher education. There was no state university, and the state teachers' colleges were meagerly supported. Young people who wanted a chance for higher education had to seek it in other states. New Jersey thus came to be called by some critics "the cuckoo state" after the bird that leaves its eggs to be hatched in other nests. It was in this atmosphere that the School of Conservation was launched with the distinct understanding that there would be no public funds available for support. The survival and growth of the school can be attributed to the dedication and sacrifice of its administrators and instructors and the support of certain state officials.

Today the New Jersey School of Conservation is sound and vigorous and its future secure. To Director John Kirk and his splendid staff, who have led it through crises and accomplishment to its confident and productive present and toward its promising future, we extend our greetings and convey our admiration and our gratitude. And we extend our gratitude beyond to the 20,000 friends of the school who wrote letters of support when the school was in great peril.

In a world that is faced with the "bang" of nuclear holocaust or the "whimper" of progressive environmental deterioration - both of which threaten human habitation on this planet - the New Jersey action shines as a beacon of hope. That the legislature should move unanimously to support the School shows what a continual program of education for young and old alike can do to enlist dedicated support for such an institution and for the principles it represents.

The establishment of the School of Conservation in perpetuity comes at an auspicious time. The [Reagan][ administration in Washington, which was elected with a mere majority of 52 percent of the popular vote, claims a mandate from the people to set the clock back on several decades of progress in natural resource policy and environmental protection. While spending hundreds of billions for more nuclear bombs and devices to deliver them, it is slashing the resources of the Environmental Protection Agency and neutralizing the effectiveness of the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. With the encouragement of the Department of the Interior, mineral developers are looking greedily at wilderness areas, at the western prairies, and the continental shelf.

The only effective long-term answer to this disastrous trend of events is for the public to become concerned and to act to reverse this trend. This, in turn, depends upon the kind of education provided by the School of Conservation and other such institutions. Such education can best be accomplished in the out-of-doors, where people can encounter nature directly and thus appreciate the relationships of the human species to the other forms of life on the planet.

Apparently a significant and active number of New Jersey citizens have acquired this kind of education and have voiced a different mandate than the one claimed in Washington today.

Yes, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope to be gained from what has happened in New Jersey.

Wapalanne: Contrasts and Continuities

Ernest Partridge\

The Journal of Environmental Education, 13:3 (Spring, 1982)


[In 1982] Governor Brendan Byrne... signed into law a bill which allow[ed] the New Jersey School of Conservation to continue in perpetuity to serve environmental educators of the state, the nation, and the world. Many readers of this journal will greet the news with great personal satisfaction, for they have known the school as students, staff, and visitors. The acquired insights and the dedicated service of the quarter-million citizens and educators who have passed through its doors are an enduring legacy of the New Jersey School of Conservation.

In the 30-year journey that brought it to this accomplishment, the school has undergone significant growth and development. Yet the enduring features of the New Jersey School of Conservation may bear the deeper implications of this splendid achievement.

As a youngster, I was privileged to be present at the beginning seasons of the school. Later, in 1963-4, I began my college [teaching] career in association with the school as the Paterson State College Coordinator of Outdoor Education and, for two years, a member of the summer staff. Thus the news of the rescue and renewal of the school prompted some acute personal reminiscences and reflections.


To tell the truth it didn't look like much that Easter weekend of 1949 - our first encounter with the old Skellinger farm and the CCC camp at Lake Wapalanne. Too late in the winter season for the crisp clean mantle of snow and too early for even a hint of the coming spring, neither the weather nor the season had arranged an auspicious introduction. Slabs of broken ice quilted the lake; clods of old windblown snow and drab patches of weedy turf marked the overgrown fields. A gray sheet of sky and gust of bone chilling wind reminded us of nature's indifference to our arrival.

Then there were the buildings. On the near side of the lake we found rows of standard, government issue, pine clapboard barracks abandoned by the CCC crews.

"What's all this?" asked the bewildered teen-ager.

"The college is going to set up a camp next summer," replied his father, the director-designate.


The director's assenting disappointment was ill-concealed by his silence.

The initial letdown was eased somewhat when we inspected the other side of the lake. There, the buildings were thoughtfully placed alongside the mountain, away from the busy road and on the quiet arm of the lake, carefully crafted and sited to have minimum physical and visual impact upon the natural environment. We began to suspect that the place might have possibilities after all.

Two months later, on Memorial Day weekend, nature had performed her routine annual miracle. With the oaks, maples, birches, lindens, and beeches leafed out, the cabins receded into the woods. In this context of life renewed and life in process, nature was prepared to offer her lessons - much more to the point, we were ready to learn. The most profound and enduring lessons, we were to discover, were not in the curriculum.

During those first few years, the director and his staff set themselves to the tasks of building a field campus, a curriculum, and a tradition. Significant parts of those tasks were "rebuilding," "unbuilding," and "non-building" as some CCC structures were landscaped and redesigned, the row barracks were razed and their sites returned to the forest and temptingly "developable" plots were deliberately left in their natural state. The initial shock of disappointment was forgotten as the attractive campus evolved on the field side of Lake Wapalanne. The curriculum was built out of the accumulation insight, experience, and, be sure, trials and occasional errors of the staff and students. The building of the traditions was unplanned - and irresistible. Traditions thus built are the only traditions worth having.

In August of 1977, after a decade of absence, I returned for a visit. After a warm greeting and briefing, Director John Kirk wisely left me with my leisure time, my good two feet, and my memories. The greatest changes, I gratefully discovered, were wrought by nature, not by developers. The wooded, residential side of the lake seemed indistinguishable from what I had known decades before. On the field side, nature's work was more evident. The trees at Piney Point, planted by the CCC, were approaching maturity. A previously footworn meadow, now sectioned off, was displaying plant succession and hosting a rich variety of wildlife. And the forest's repair of the site of the row barracks promised a climax stage that would deceive the most acute archeological eye.

Nature was also politely altered to make room for a few additions. Noteworthy among them was a carriage house, first built in 1813 and saved from a farm believed to be doomed to inundation by the subsequently deauthorized Tocks Island Dam. After patient negotiations, Director John Kirk arranged to have a group of Montclair State College Industrial Arts students dismantle and move the building, and then, using pegs and pioneer tools, meticulously match the 5000 pieces and reassemble the structure at the edge of the activities field. No state appropriation cold have accomplished what devoted attention and persistence brought to that site. And across from the carriage house, but a bee-line spanning the activities field and, in a sense, the history of the school, stood "Chief's," the craft house - a sow's-ear of a CCC shack, transformed in those early years into a silk purse of a cabin by the skilled and dedicated old hands of the late Joseph "Chief" D'Angola.

The site of the School of Conservation thus stands as a physical exemplification of some enduring principles and lessons of environmental education and as working evidence of the human resources necessary to make an environmental education program succeed, prosper, and endure. Among these principles and lessons:

  • a sense of enduring processes, of trackless time, of permanence. This sense is acquired through residence in a forest essentially unchanged since the last glaciation and through encounters with fossils and strata, ridges, and ravines.

  • with this sense of permanence, a sense of natural place, of kinship, respect, and reverence for the land and the life upon it. This sense is displayed by the modesty of the intrusions upon the natural landscape.

  • in contrast, an acute awareness of the relentless work of a civilization that has effected an unprecedented degree and rapidity of change in its natural environment.

  • lessons in interdisciplinary insight. Cabins and carriage houses, lakes and abandoned fields are intersections of history, ideology, crafts, sociology, natural science, and natural resources and environments.

  • lessons in international brotherhood. A recognition that natural ecosystems do not, like maps, change colors or character at natural boundaries, that migratory birds and acid rain do not stop at border stations. It is the language, not the natural environment, that most conspicuously discloses that Wapalanne is in the United States and not in Austria, Norway, or [Russia].

  • a sense of the integrated wholeness of nature and of the fundamental harmony of humanity with nature. This sense of wholeness cracks open encapsulated prejudices and dissolves disciplinary and national boundaries.

  • a reminder that the most enriching lessons of nature and are learned through acquaintance and encounter, and learned early. These are lessons that instill the child with a sense of delight and wonder sufficient to motivate him later in life to endure and even eagerly to seek the knowledge of nature that might be appropriately sought in the library or the laboratory

  • a reminder that environmental education programs which succeed and endure are the products of the work of dedicated professionals for whom environmental education is not a job but a career - even more, a fundamental commitment.

Finally, the rescue and renewal of the School of Conservation testifies, through its students, staff, alumni, and friends, to an endurance of these lessons so well learned and to an endurance of loyalty to the place that taught them.

All these, and more, are the lessons the New Jersey School of Conservation offers to teachers and citizens of the state which now supports in perpetuity and to a nation and civilization acutely in need of such lessons.

Copyright 1982, by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .