Sourland Conservancy: 1986 - Present
The Sourland Mountain has been around for several hundred million years, but only a few people recognized its significance until fairly recently. Most of it is covered with a thin layer of clay soil underlain by extremely hard diabase granite. The Lenni Lenape Native Americans lived in settlements along the flanks of the Mountain and hunted here for deer, squirrels, and birds, but did not find it a productive area for growing crops. Dutch, German, and English settlers found the same problems, so while they cleared a great deal of the deciduous forest for firewood and lumber, well into the twentieth century there were only a few tiny hamlets and scattered houses in the woods.
This began to change in the 1980’s when a growing economy and improved roads made the relatively inexpensive land in the Sourlands become attractive to small developers and individual home buyers. This hilly, reforested area, quite different in availability of well water and septic system function from the surrounding open fields, was governed by five municipalities and three counties. In 1986 a group of Sourland residents from Hillsborough, Hopewell, and East Amwell met to share their concerns about the growing threat of unsustainable development. Led by Bob Garrett, our first president, we determined to do everything we could to raise awareness of the unique characteristic of the largest contiguous forest in central New Jersey. We recruited members who attended our hikes, talks, ice cream socials, participated on our behalf at community events, and read our “Back Roads” newsletter. We got a grant to publish our first book, “The Sourland Legacy.” We testified before the State Planning Commission, which at the time had declared its intent to designate the Mountain as a “future suburbanizing area.” We worked with local governments to get updated health and zoning ordinances protecting the fragile aquifer. We also spoke out at hearings in opposition to activities with a deleterious effect on our environment, such as a local quarry dumping huge quantities of rock dust into a local Mountain headwater stream. In 1992 we hired a professional consultant to conduct a survey of randomly chosen Sourland residents, seeking their opinions about what they valued in living here; unsurprisingly, there was resounding support for maintaining the special character of the area. By this time our membership had widened to include people from Montgomery and West Amwell Townships.
Sadly, in 1998 Bob Garrett, who had been the glue holding our group together, passed away, and we sent out a plea in the newsletter for members to step up and reinvigorate the organization. Fortunately, Jerry Haimowitz of Hillsborough stepped up to the plate and backed by many of our original members as well as newly recruited ones, we continued and expanded upon our advocacy of the Sourlands. By 2000 we had shortened our name to “Sourland Planning Council” and begun to advocate for a formal, legally binding regional Master Plan. In 2001 we published “New Jersey’s Sourland Mountain” by T.J. Luce, a retired Princeton professor and SPC Trustee who donated two years of his life to researching, writing, collecting the graphics, and getting a grant to print this remarkable book. It sold out very quickly, has been reprinted and is still available in paperback. In 2003 another Trustee, Jennifer Bryson, began negotiating with the State DEP for support in developing a Smart Growth Plan for the Mountain. By 2004 we had a grant from the NJ Division of Community Affairs which allowed for collecting an enormous amount of data about the characteristics of the region; another grant followed in 2006 which provided for a build-out analysis, hydrology study, and a draft Comprehensive Management Plan. We continued our outreach and advocacy activities, including our first annual outdoor Music Fest in the summer of 2004.
By 2007 we had reached the “organizational growing stage” of being willing to hire a part-time Executive Director, a first in a 501(c)3 nonprofit which had previously done all its work by our Trustees and other volunteers. With the help of the employees who filled this position we successfully advocated for each of our five Townships to officially declare the Sourlands a “Special Resource Area” under the State Plan. Unfortunately a new administration in Trenton dismissed this concept, but we still hope for a future Governor to recognize the Sourlands as an exceptional region from the State perspective. The third stage of the Smart Growth project, although without State funding this time, created a new “Sourland Alliance,” consisting of representatives appointed by the governing bodies of the five municipalities, with the goal of facilitating communication and developing common interests shared by the Townships and Sourland advocates. Because we know that Sourland residents, whether members or not, value the special character of the Mountain, in 2010 we created, and mailed to every address in the Sourlands, a magazine-sized “Sourland Stewardship Guide” containing information about invasive species, wildlife and other information about Sourland environmental issues. In 2012 we took a leap forward in hiring a full-time Executive Director who has assumed the growing responsibility of tracking all the myriad of activities and projects now ongoing. We also initiated what has become an enormously successful community event, the “Sourland Spectacular,” gathering hundreds of bicycle enthusiasts from all over the tri-state area to ride designated routes of their choice and culminating in a pizza and ice cream feast.
In 2013 we changed our name to reflect the fact that we are NOT a governmental body of any sort, and that we are devoted to goals far beyond merely planning. We are now legally and officially the “Sourland Conservancy.” At this writing we, while recognizing the importance of the Highlands and the Pinelands, also are continuing to advocate for this remarkable Sourland Mountain. We are truly a grassroots effort and we hope you will join us if you haven’t already!