Land Conservation Finds Religion

by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Did you know that, next to the state, religious institutions are the largest landowners in New Jersey?  Tens of thousands of acres of forests, farms, wetlands, riverfronts and meadows are owned by churches of all stripes throughout this state we’re in.  And some of these properties are downright spectacular!

Take the lands of the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist in Mendham, Morris County, whose 112 acres were recently preserved as permanent open space by the national Trust for Public Land.  The land is in the water-rich and sensitive Highlands region, and its forests and streams form the headwaters of the Gladstone Brook, eventually emptying into the North Branch of the Raritan River. Drive along Mosle Road to the new preserve and you may think you are in New England, not New Jersey!  Mendham Township now owns and manages the land with the New Jersey Water Supply Authority and Schiff Natural Lands Trust, which runs a nearby nature preserve.


This property is representative of thousands of acres of land held by churches and other religious institutions.  The lands are benefiting from a reawakening among many religious groups to “creation care” that encompasses a respect for all life on Earth.

A great example of this message is the story of Sister Miriam MacGillis, a Dominican nun who founded the 226-acre Genesis Farm and its Earth Studies Center in Blairstown in 1980.  A visit to Genesis Farm, also now preserved, is a special experience of natural beauty, peace, spirituality, healthy food and inspiration.  Since then, the movement toward land preservation and stewardship has been growing across the United States and Canada, where sisters have woven themes of environmental justice and community-supported agriculture into their religious vocation.

Preserving natural areas and providing public access to them brings real benefits to entire communities, and can create and expand new community relationships.

In central New Jersey, the D&R Greenway Land Trust just completed the purchase of the 340-acre St. Michael’s property in Hopewell Township, Mercer County. This project exemplifies perseverance and community involvement.  The St. Michael’s property takes its name from the orphanage and school that operated there from 1896 to 1973.  Bordering Hopewell Borough, and the preserved lands of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, it was one of the largest remaining parcels of open space in Mercer County and could easily have been developed for 150 or more homes.

The land includes over 200 acres of farm fields, as well as mature woodlands, grassland and shrub-land habitats that support diverse wildlife species.  In addition, Bedens Brook and its four tributaries cross the property on their way to the Delaware and Raritan Canal.  The D&R Greenway Land Trust plans to continue farming the fields, and is working to identify walking trails for the community.

Grassroots community supporters played a critical role in raising support and funding for the project, forming the St. Michael’s Preservation Committee.  One fourth-grader even went door-to-door on Halloween to collect donations for the project and, through this and other efforts, raised more than $3,300!

We applaud those religious groups that choose preservation over development when deciding what to do with lands they no longer have a use for. There’s no doubt that protecting open space and farmland benefits us all, with clean drinking water, flood control, food security, clean air, outdoor recreation – and, perhaps most important, the quiet, serene, beautiful places that restore our souls in this noisy and often chaotic world.

I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at or contact me at, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

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