Dismal Swamp Commission works to define protected areas

Dec. 14, 2015: There is a vision shared by many people of Dismal Swamp as a robust recreational area full of campsites, kayak launches, cook outs and other outdoors activities.

A 1,240-acre area for families to drive a couple minutes and get away from the crowds, to do things like hike and watch birds.

Most significantly, water from underground springs and run-off drains into the swamp, helping alleviate flooding in the area.

It’s a jewel of a natural resource in the midst of overdeveloped Middlesex County, but it needs permanent protection. That process is proving to take work and, perhaps more than anything, political will to make a reality.

Borough Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen articulated this dream to me during a meeting of the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission one rainy night in November. She and Commission Member Walter Stochel were the only members who showed up for the meeting.

“My personal dream is to make it a recreational area in Middlesex County that’s close to home that will provide recreational activities for families,” Rasmussen said. “It’ll keep people being healthy, it’ll be educational … a place for people to relax and not have to spend a lot of gas [getting there].”

Former Governor Jon Corzine, joined by Assemblymen (now Senator) Peter Barnes and Patrick Diegnan, signed the commission into law in 2009. The Commission was originally intended to launch with $95,000, but never received any funding until Edison Wetlands Association donated about $6,000 to the cause.

The Commission’s current focus is on setting the boundaries of the preservation area of the swamp. Ideally, the entire area would be preserved, but that doesn’t seem to be realistic. Some parcels in the swamp are privately owned, some are owned by municipalities and others by the county. The swamp runs through Metuchen, Edison and South Plainfield.

The Commission is tasked with defining the boundaries of the preservation area, and that requires authorization by each municipality. This is where political will comes into play.

One obstacle to full preservation is South Plainfield, which has been committed to a plan for more than 30 years to cut a truck road through what Stochel described as the heart of the swamp. The borough has been trying to find a way to route trucks coming off Route 287 around residential areas to Metuchen Road, South Plainfield’s warehouse district, according to an article from 2013 in nj.com.

The state Department of Environment Protection greenlit a plan in 2013 to run the road through portions of Dismal Swamp, though the borough still needed to line up financing for the project at the time, the article said.

Lining up financing for the truck road will be challenging, Stochel said.

The key to pushing through preservation is finding compromises, Rasmussen said. The commission won’t get everything it wants, but there’s likely a way to come to agreement with other parties involved to get much of the land preserved.

Once each municipality chooses the parcels to be protected, they will be taken over by the Commission. Some of the resolutions could be approved in the next year, especially Metuchen’s, Stochel said.

Metuchen appears to be fully committed to protecting the portion of the swamp in the borough. Recently, Metuchen was awarded a non-monetary “technical assistance”grant to extend the Middlesex Greenway across Middlesex Avenue into Dismal Swamp.

For now, volunteers will continue to cut brush back from the Bound Brook, which runs through the swamp, to make room for kayakers. Boy scouts and other concerned people go in periodically to clean out litter, or cut overgrown trails. It’s a labor of love, but one that is worth it.

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