Protecting the Dismal Swamp in Central NJ

June 21, 2011

We welcome back David Wheeler, Director of Operations for Edison Wetlands Association, for the second of his two guest blogs about incredible comeback stories of New Jersey’s natural resources. In case you missed it, his first post told us the story of the restoration of the Raritan River. Today, read about the renewal of the Dismal Swamp, the “everglades of Central Jersey.”

Wild Iris in the Dismal Swamp

Blue flag iris in the Dismal Swamp

By David Wheeler
Director of Operations
Edison Wetlands Association

At first glance, the wooded slopes of the Bound Brook appeared to be something from a Bram Stoker nightmare in the Carpathian Mountains. Sharp-pointed wooden stakes jut from the ground every few feet, like the handiwork of Vlad the Impaler.

Yet the cause of these stakes is something far more benign: the hard-working American beaver. Beavers returned to the Bound Brook’s headwaters here in the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area around a decade ago, after nearly a century away. Industry’s historic legacy on New Jersey water quality, combined with the endless push of development, rendered the watershed largely unsuitable for the beaver and many other water-dependent wildlife.

Once beavers returned to the Dismal Swamp, they made up for lost time. As in other natural areas, their handiwork creates habitat for other species. Along the Bound Brook headwaters in Edison, Metuchen, and South Plainfield, a number of remote areas host beaver families. Yet this stretch of the brook near the Triple C Ranch marked the first time I observed so many freshly cut trees – at least 50 in all – in a single place.

Beaver cut tree in Dismal Swamp

Beaver-cut tree along the Bound Brook

Hard to believe we are in one of the most highly developed, densely populated regions in the country. Surrounding this natural oasis are condos, strip malls, and traffic. Look at a Google Earth map of northern Middlesex County and you’ll see all that sprawl around one wild green heart. This heart beats with American kestrel, red-shouldered hawk, green heron, muskrats, red fox, spotted turtle, snapping turtle, and crayfish. Over a dozen threatened and endangered species can be found here in the Diz, as we affectionately call the Dismal Swamp.

Oriole in Dismal Swamp

Baltimore oriole

cormorant dismal swamp

Cormorant eating a fish at Turtle Pond

tree swallow (1)

Tree swallow

In his book, H2O: Highlands to Ocean, Tony Hiss memorably describes the Dismal Swamp as “a hidden emerald of the H2O Region…forested freshwater wetlands interspersed with pure springs, small streams and green meadows that 12,000 years ago served as a winter camp for the first Native Americans to enter the area after the glaciers had retreated.”

Yet this green emerald didn’t survive the past century’s intensive regional development push by accident. At first – as its very name suggests – the Dismal Swamp escaped the bulldozer for the singular reason that it was undesirable. (As if “swamp” wasn’t menacing enough for early settlers, they had to clarify that it was also “dismal”).  Instead of being converted to farms like the surrounding area, the Diz became the home of midnight dumpers, illegal hunters, and destructive off-road vehicles, a virtually lawless no-man’s land.

EWA staff inspecting net at Dismal Swamp

EWA’s Environmental Education team examines the catch from a kick net study (from left: Krysti Sabins, Tori Bingham, Nguyen Tran, Jillian Weislo)

That began to change when local residents got involved. Activist Jane Tousman spearheaded the Save Our Swamp grassroots group, which teamed with Bob Spiegel’s newly-born Edison Wetlands Association in the early 1990’s to preserve a huge parcel of land from a housing development. Spiegel also saved the 40-acre Triple C Ranch – the last remaining farm in the area – from becoming another cookie-cutter residential complex.

EWA has worked since then to preserve many other key Dismal Swamp properties, partnering with groups like NY-NJ Baykeeper and New Jersey Audubon Society, and agencies like the Middlesex County Freeholders and the NY/NJ Port Authority to save over 800 acres in Edison and nearly 100 acres in South Plainfield from overdevelopment. And the Dismal Swamp State Preservation Commission was formed to establish a regional protection plan for the area.

Equally important is introducing the public to this long-hidden natural oasis. EWA is working on a number of trails projects to expand opportunities for hiking, birding, and wildlife viewing in the area. In 2011 the Middlesex Greenway just opened the newest leg of its trail connecting hikers and bicyclists from Perth Amboy, Woodbridge, and Edison with Metuchen’s portion of the Dismal Swamp. EWA continues to work with elected officials and the Edison Greenways Group to extend the greenway into the heart of South Plainfield’s Dismal Swamp.

David and snapping turtle

David Wheeler and snapping turtle

Cooper's Hawk in the Dismal Swamp

Cooper’s Hawk

Unfortunately, ill-advised development proposals continue to rear their heads: the controversial proposal to divert Green Acres-protected land at the Visco site in Edison; the Quincy Place Associates plan to build on illegally filled wetlands; and the Hollywood Avenue diesel truck highway proposal to bisect the heart of the Dismal Swamp.

For EWA, it is clear that the Dismal Swamp will only be protected with continued vigilance and public involvement. One positive sign is the increase in community interest in seeing the Diz first-hand through ecotours, nature hikes, volunteer cleanups, birding trips, and working on the volunteer community garden and rain garden. Each time a school group, scout troop, or civic organization tours the area, a visitor is almost guaranteed to exclaim: I had no idea we had such a beautiful area right in my own backyard!

For information on the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area, visit

David Wheeler is the Director of Operations for Edison Wetlands Association and the author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

Images courtesy Edison Wetlands Association