Nonprofit that saved NJ environmental school poised to take over — with $1M in funding

Nonprofit that saved NJ environmental school poised to take over — with $1M in funding

The 240-acre School of Conservation in New Jersey’s Stokes State Forest is getting a $1 million investment and could secure new management guaranteeing its future as an oasis for environmental learning.

The state Legislature gave final approval to a bill on Wednesday naming the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation as the new overseers of the 70-year-old school.

Former campus counselors and their students launched the nonprofit in 1987 to help the school with fundraising and volunteer projects. The Friends group expanded to include other school supporters and these organizers fought to reopen the campus with limited programs in April 2021, about a year after Montclair State University closed down operations and laid off 18 staff members

The state’s $50.6 billion budget, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed this week, gives the Friends nonprofit $1 million to maintain and operate the 57-building campus.

Located in Sussex County, the School of Conservation has educated more than 400,000 teachers and students since opening in 1949, according to its supporters. Montclair State took over management in 1981 but shut down the campus during the pandemic due to financial constraints.

Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation, has been fighting to manage the property and bring the school back to its full potential.

“This will give us the opportunity to continue the programming that was promised to the students and educators of the state of New Jersey back in 1949,” Pflugh, whose father, John J. Kirk, served as the school’s director for 38 years, told Gothamist.

Pflugh said with the new funds, the Friends will be able to expand programming and, in the short term, allow elementary students to stay for a three-day course. The school is currently only offering day programs to the public and a handful of schools.

“The School of Conservation was founded under the concept that you would learn through discovery, so experiential learning, and I think that we want to restore that for all the residents of New Jersey,” Pflugh said.

In January, the Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the land that the school sits on, requested proposals from groups that were interested in managing the school. Montclair State University submitted a proposal and later withdrew, leaving the Friends and another entity, DiamondPrep as the only interested parties.

The DEP told Gothamist it is waiting to see what happens with the legislation before deciding on the proposals.

“If the proposed bill is signed, the department will work with the Friends group in the manner called for in the legislation,” DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said in an email.

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