A Decade On The Front Lines
Grass roots citizen groups often last but a season or two, folding with the success or faiIure of a single-issue campaign. But name a heated environmental issue in Ringwood’s Highlands over the past decade, and a group called Skylands CLEAN (Citizens for the Land, Environment, And Neighborhoods) has invariably played a prominent role.
Organized in the fall of 1987 to fight for conservation of the forested peaks west of the Wanaque Reservoir, the group is marking 10 years of work to keep suburbia out of an area that provides much of North Jersey’s drinking water. “Two million people get water from here. It’s up to local groups in Ringwood to help protect this water,” said one of the groups two co-founders, as he stood beside the sprawling reservoir that serves communities in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, and Hudson counties.
Tackling local and regional issues has been a hallmark of the Ringwood-based group. It has been active in a coalition to conserve Sterling Forest, just over Ringwood’s northern border in Orange County, N.Y., and in the Highlands Coalition, which aims to conserve open space in New Jersey’s mountains. Fundamental to its success is a savvy knowledge of government processes. Skylands CLEAN’s members and supporters monitor and speak at municipal meetings, attend community meetings, lobby state and federal officials, and distribute a periodic newsletter to every household in Ringwood.
Skylands CLEAN is now weighing against a proposed county road from Route 287 into Ringwood atop the reservoir’s regional water pipes, as well as new zoning by the Borough Council that allows increased development on steep slopes. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection recently vetoed the proposed road. And preservation of Highlands watersheds has emerged as a priority for much larger powers, such as the Regional Plan Association and Governor Whitman’s administration.
Its front-line efforts have brought Skylands CLEAN lawsuits by developers, invective from local development supporters, and hostility from some borough officials. Nonetheless, the ecology group celebrated its anniversary last October with a fund-raising dinner. “We still haven’t given up,” the organization’s president and other co-founder said recently as they surveyed the golden hues of soaring forests rimming the reservoir. Just beyond sight and sound, heavy traffic coursed along Route 287. The highway’s completion has brought intense development pressures on Highlands communities in northern Passaic and Morris counties. “One of the nice things to discover is that the people in Ringwood really have an appreciation for nature,” the president said. “People have repeatedly told us that the reason they move to Ringwood is they like the way it is. We have a lot of support from people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists, but they want to protect their quality of life.”
In the midst of the Appalachian scenery that enthralls visitors to the reservoir is Saddle Mountain, owned by a stone-quarry company. Skylands CLEAN was organized to press for state Green Acres protection of the mountain and neighboring peaks in the Wyanokie Highlands. But conservation efforts were stymied by the 1990 purchase of the mountain and an adjacent sand and gravel pit by the quarry company, which rebuffed a state Green Acres buyout offer.
Undeterred, the group aided other neighborhoods in successfully opposing plans in 1991 for a power plant near the reservoir. It also took on radio towers and other development plans that clashed with the borough’s rural character. And it helped spark a crushing 1994 referendum defeat of a proposal to extend regional sewerage into Ringwood to serve new housing developments.
In recognition of his work, one of CLEAN’s co-founders was given the 1994 Conservationist Award by the New Jersey Audubon Society. He and Skylands CLEAN were cited as founding members of the Highlands Coalition and the Sterling Forest Coalition. However, borough officials did not reappoint him to the Environmental Commission. Ecology-minded supporters also were not renamed to the Planning Board.
But both co-founders remain confident that Skylands CLEAN conveys a message that carries significant weight beyond Borough Hall. Virtually every prominent politician, from Governor Whitman to Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives, heads for Ringwood’s spectacular setting when they want to burnish their environmental credentials.
(Based on an October 14, 1997 article from The Record by staff writer Jan Barry.)