EDISON – Councilman Robert Diehl remembers a few years ago giving a tour of the Dismal Swamp to 100 first-graders, but all of the young students were afraid of the forest and the outdoors.
Diehl realized that the 100 students he had with him have never gone out and played in the woods.
“Maybe it’s because of development, or maybe it’s because of technology,” he said, “but we had a bunch of children who were not outside, who were not playing outside, and who have never been in the woods.”Diehl is hoping that may change for future Middlesex County children with the advent of $200,000 in state funds needed to preserve the Dismal Swamp.
For eight years, officials in Edison, South Plainfield and Metuchen have been meeting, planning and working on plans to preserve the Dismal Swamp, which extends into each of the three municipalities, but they never had enough funding to be able to do so — until now.
The state appropriation will go towards hiring a contractor to survey the boundaries of the 1,200-acre property and enact a master plan for the region. The money may also be used for access trails, signage, restoration initiatives, education and natural heritage programs.
Now, the future of the Dismal Swamp is looking less dismal.
“To get this money so we can continue to work and go to the next step is really exciting,” said Diehl, who also serves as a commissioner of the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission. “It doesn’t have an attractive name, but the truth is, it is a jewel in the rough.”
In announcing the state aid, Diehl was joined on Saturday at the Edison Township Municipal Building by state, county and local elected officials. Sen. Patrick Diegnan, Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey and Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch, Middlesex County Freeholder Charles Tomaro were in attendance along with members of the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission, Edison Wetlands Association and members of the Edison Township Council.
Diegnan said it took years to secure the funding for the swamp’s preservation.
“Today’s a good day to celebrate,” he said. “It was a joint effort. It was an effort positive force on behalf of people who love the environment.”
Karabinchak echoed Diegnan’s sentiment when he spoke about the amount of time it took to get to this point.
“The years and years it took to get here was a collaborative effort,” Karabinchak said. “There were so many people who were involved in this, and no one ever forgot.”
One of those persons was Jane Tousman, an influential environmentalist who was one of the first to fight for the Dismal Swamp’s preservation. Tousman, who died in 2014 at the age of 77, organized an effort to fight developers in the 1980s and 1990s that were eyeing the Dismal Swamp as a possible site for development.
A picture of Tousman was taped to the podium inside the municipal building as officials spoke Saturday.
“The Dismal Swamp would have never happened if it weren’t for a group of people led by Jane Tousman,” Freeholder Tomaro said.
Pinkin said the swamp plays an important role not just as source of education and recreation for Middlesex County residents, but also as a means of protection.
“People wonder, ‘Why should we invest money? Why should we preserve the Dismal Swamp?’ ” she said. “After Hurricane Sandy and after Hurricane Irene, we realized the huge, huge that these superstorms are having on our environment, the water level rising.”
“One of the advantages of the swamps is that they have a natural flood control,” she added. “They purify the water, they purify the oxygen after peak flows have passed, and they reduce the storm surge and slow the velocity of water.”
Pinkin said a single acre of wetlands can retain 330,000 gallons of water, which is enough to flood 13 average-sized homes.
The Dismal Swamp, with its 1,200 acres, is the biggest piece of open space in northern Middlesex County.
“I remember forever that we were talking about this getting money, doing this survey, and getting things done in the swamp,” he said. “Well finally it’s here. And it’s really just here because of the team here.” Lankey said.
Busch said that he is looking forward to what comes of the Dismal Swamp and its connection to Metuchen.
He said that within the time he has been mayor, he has noticed residents commending development like the Whole Foods and the expansion of its green, but the one that is lacking “is recreational space.”
A huge chunk of the Dismal Swamp extends into Metuchen, he added.
“We really hope one day that we can create and establish an entrance from the Metuchen side into this incredible natural resource,” he said.
Dorothy Rasmussen, chairwoman of Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission and a Metuchen councilwoman, said the $200,000 will allow the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission “to actually do the work that we were slated to do.”
She said her dream of having a local space for busy families to escape to on weekends or evenings as opposed to having to drive distances to Hunterdon or Sussex counties to enjoy nature is closer to reality,
Robert Spiegel has been working on preserving the Dismal Swamp since 1989 when the Edison Wetlands Association was formed.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Spiegel said. “This is a beginning, not an end, and it”s going to take the work of all three towns.”
But that work, he said, will provide a place of education and recreation for future generations to come.
“This is not just for us,” Spiegel said. “This is for future generations to have a living classroom where they can bring their families.”
For more information, and updates on the project, visit www.njdismalswamp.org.