by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
New Jersey is blessed with many individuals who have taken a stand and fought against ill-conceived development projects that would have forever altered the natural landscape of this state we’re in.
But one, in particular, has left an enormous legacy for all New Jerseyans. Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen Jr. passed away on May 23 at the age of 95. His family’s long tradition of public service uniquely positioned him to champion open space in the halls of government, as well as at the grassroots level. Thanks to his courageous effort, New Jersey has the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
The Frelinghuysen family traces its roots of public service back to the birth of the nation – to Frederick Frelinghuysen, a Revolutionary War veteran who later served as a member of the Continental Congress and U.S. Senate. Peter’s ancestors include a Newark mayor, Rutgers and New York University presidents, N.J. State Senate president, N.J. Attorney General, four U.S. senators, a vice presidential candidate and even the 29th U.S. Secretary of State.
Despite this bloodline of public service, Peter Frelinghuysen initially believed his twin brother Henry would take up the political calling. Peter was a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, and served as a naval intelligence officer during World War II. Afterward, he studied at Columbia University and worked in banking.
But when the local Congressional seat was vacated in 1952, it was Peter who ran and won. He held the seat from 1953 until his retirement in 1974. This same seat is now held by Peter’s son, Rodney.
The newly minted Congressman Frelinghuysen made his mark quickly, as a freshman with courage enough to vocally oppose the McCarthyism of the day. During his tenure he supported civil rights, federal funds for school construction and the Higher Education Act of 1965, which helped more students afford college.
When asked in 2009 by New Jersey Monthly magazine what his proudest achievement was, however, Peter Frelinghuysen named his work protecting the Great Swamp in Morris County. He called it “the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”
In 1959, the Port of New York Authority announced plans to build an international airport in New Jersey’s Great Swamp. Recognizing that the plan would forever alter the Morris-Somerset region, a grassroots group of volunteers – Peter Frelinghuysen among them – organized to save the Swamp. In the face of some of the most powerful development interests of the day, their strategy was to buy blocks of open space and block the airport by establishing a wildlife refuge.
Peter’s tenacious opposition to the airport helped derail it. A leader at the local level, his government connections helped garner federal support. Ultimately, he had the privilege of sponsoring the legislation establishing the 7,768-acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
“My father was absolutely devoted to New Jersey as demonstrated by his willingness to fight to preserve our open space long before it was popular,” said Rodney Frelinghuysen. “He was a committed conservationist and one of his most satisfying moments was to work with like-minded citizens to establish the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and support the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s early leadership in protecting and preserving similar open spaces of environmental and historical importance across northern New Jersey. His view of the ‘public trust’ he held as a Representative was to assure that succeeding generations would inherit such remarkable sanctuaries and protect them.”
Conservation wasn’t just policy for Peter; it was personal. Much of his Harding Township estate has been preserved, including 14 acres he donated to the Harding Land Trust. This comes as no surprise from someone who’s part of the extended family that bequeathed the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown to the county Park Commission.
Perhaps it was Peter Frelinghuysen’s deeply rooted sense of tradition and passion for the land that set him upon the non-traditional path of conservation trailblazer. His family name and history of public service lives on, and his wonderful legacy – written in New Jersey’s green woodlands, blue waters and amber fields – will remain forever, to be enjoyed by future generations. Thank you, Peter!
If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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