"What are the magic words?" asks the magician. "Open Space!!!" yell dozens of school kids watching one of Paul Becker's Great Environmental Magic Shows at the Lord Stirling Environmental Education Center in Basking Ridge. Paul is the outreach and communications specialist at the Somerset County Park Commission's 900 acre park, and his show is one of dozens of methods he uses to teach people how to appreciate the Great Swamp, a place where "open space" have been magic words for a long time. To those that know it, the words themselves--Great Swamp-- hold enough magic and wonder for years of learning, exploration and understanding.
Becker's award-winning exhibition at Lord Stirling, Secrets of the Great Swamp, is a good place to begin to find out why. A series of 15 displays tells the tale. Lying 200 feet above the surrounding terrain, the remnants of the glacial Lake Passaic are sometimes referred to as the great swamp in the sky. There is evidence of paleo-Indian habitation in the area on the heels of the glacier, 15,000 years ago. Lenape culture followed and dominated until colonial times when William Alexander, the Lord of Stirling and a Major General in the Continental Army, built an elegant Georgian Manor with numerous outbuildings, orchards and stables on the swamp's edge.
Archeological work at the site has recovered thousands of artifacts which are on display and which have inspired the Lord Stirling festival each fall. The rest of Becker's exhibit, and, in fact, the agenda at Lord Stirling Park, is environmental education.
Lord Stirling is one of three facilities at which the public may access this most precious tract of marsh, pond, meadow, wetland and woodland. On the opposite, eastern end of the Swamp lies the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center. Opened in 1963 by the Morris County Park Commission, this teaching center for natural history uses the Great Swamp as a outdoor classroom. Between the two county run outposts lies the National Wildlife Refuge.
190 Lord Stirling Road, Basking Ridge, 908/766-2489
The Somerset Park property on the western border of the Refuge includes 900 acres, 8 12 miles of trails, 2 miles of boardwalk. The 18,000 s.f. building includes an Auditorium, Art Exhibit hall, classrooms, a resource library, and a gift shop/ book store. Hundreds of annual programs focus on education. It also make a great place for a kid's birthday party. The adjoining Lord Stirling Stable offers ten miles of riding trails.
Pleasant Plains Road, 973/425-1222
Office hours are 8am-4:30pm, Monday through Friday. The headquarters will also open for many weekends during spring and fall.
Wildlife Observation Center: One mile of trails, an interpretive trial, informational kiosk, blinds, restrooms, boardwalk.
247 Southern Blvd., Chatham
Open 7 days a week, 9am-4:30pm, Sept-June, the Nature Center houses a reference library, and auditorium, two classrooms, and natural history displays. Hikers are welcome on the two miles of trails, an observation blind, and boardwalk through woods, fields, swamps and marshes. Self-guiding trail books are available, and there is a connecting trail to the Eastern edge of the National Wildlife Refuge. Weekend family programming, trail walks, and workshops are scheduled on a seasonal basis.
Swamps have long been recognized for their ability to accumulate water quickly and disperse it slowly. During the 1920s the Army Corps of Engineers proposed the first of several flood control plans. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) followed in the 1930's constructing drainage ditches and straightening and deepening the channel of Black Brook, which flows through the Great Swamp. At the same time a government report recognized the Swamp's suitability as a waterfowl preserve.
In the 1950s the struggle between modern commercial developers and environmentalists began. In 1956, 450 acres were set aside as a sanctuary. Three years later, nomination of the Great Swamp as location for a 10,000 acre jetport unleashed a deluge of public fury. The Great Swamp Committee, an citizen's alliance since revered by conservancy groups around the world, worked relentlessly to align political forces and raise millions of dollars to create the National Wildlife Refuge and first ever Refuge Wilderness Area. The Committee's initial donation of 3,000 acres formed the nucleus of today's 7454 acre national refuge, as well as stimulus for the two county-run facilities.
The Refuge's western portion is managed by providing nesting structures, regulating water levels, and controlling plant growth to maintain optimum habitat for wildlife. The Wildlife Management Area serves the Refuge's foremost purpose: to provide migrating, nesting and feeding habitat for migratory birds. The area also provides unique research opportunities.
After the eastern half of the federally managed land was designated as a National Wilderness Area in 1968, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned the area to an unblemished natural state, restoring drained wetlands and removing all traces of human habitation.
Eight miles of trails through the wilderness area are accessible only on foot and offer expeditions especially sublime. A walk through the swamp usurps your will, absorbing you into its primeval past. Hillock poke through shallow puddles. Tree stumps dissolve into the muck and new growth arises from the decay. For bird lovers the Great Swamp is paradise.
A multitude of ecological systems; woodland, hardwood ridges, cattail marsh, grasslands, ponds and meandering streams; support more than 220 species of birds, 29 kinds of fish, 18 types of amphibians, 21 reptile varieties, and 33 examples of mammals. Endangered species include the blue-spotted salamander, the bog turtle, and the wood turtle.