The State We’re In: Thank You & Farewell To An Environmental Champion

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Many folks view politicians with a jaundiced eye, and there’s plenty of evidence to justify their cynicism. But that just was not the case with U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, who passed away last week.

Frank Lautenberg was a steadfast champion of the environment. During his 30 years in the Senate, he was at the forefront of cleaning up Superfund sites, promoting clean energy, advocating for green jobs, preventing offshore drilling on the Atlantic coast, and keeping our air clean.

His roots were in working class Paterson, and he never forgot them. He was known for looking out for the “little guy,” especially in public health. And to Lautenberg, protecting the environment was fundamental to protecting human health.

Lautenberg created the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge, and was instrumental in getting Paterson’s Great Falls designated as a National Historic Park and the Delaware River designated as a Wild & Scenic River.

The naming of the Frank Lautenberg Visitor Center in New York’s Sterling Forest State Park recognized his pivotal role in preserving a critical 22,000-acre Highlands property that protects drinking water supplies in New Jersey and New York. Without Lautenberg’s leadership, the pristine forest spanning the border between Orange County in New Jersey and Passaic County in New York would today be a new town of 35,000 people.

Lautenberg was a leading advocate in protecting the Highlands region, a source of water to 5.4 million New Jersey residents. He co-sponsored the federal Highlands Conservation Act, which sets aside funds to preserve land in a four-state region.

But there’s more!

If you love the Jersey Shore, you can thank Lautenberg for fighting for clean beaches and waters. He wrote the BEACH Act, a law to improve water quality monitoring standards and make sure the public is informed of problems. He worked to ban ocean dumping, and changed federal laws to fortify the hulls of oil tankers.

His landmark law that banned smoking on commercial airline flights led to other anti-smoking measures, all vastly improving public health. He wrote the Toxic Right to Know Law, giving local communities information about harmful toxins released into the air by chemical plants.

Frank Lautenberg received a lifetime score of 95 percent from the National League of Conservation Voters! In contrast, the Senate average last year was 56 percent, and the House average only 42 percent.

Naturally, Lautenberg’s efforts were much appreciated by New Jersey’s conservation community. In 2001 he received a lifetime achievement award from the New Jersey Sierra Club. A few years ago, New Jersey Conservation Foundation presented him an award on behalf of the national Land Trust Alliance.

New Jersey will miss Frank Lautenberg, our state’s longtime environmental champion. We hope his successor will continue Frank’s legacy of fighting for the essential elements our state needs to survive – clean water, clean air, wild places and public health.

For more information about conserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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