The State We're In
Abigail Fair: Conservation Trailblazer
Passion for the environment, talent for absorbing and analyzing information, strong work ethic, desire to share knowledge, and determination to make a difference. Combine these qualities with a big smile and a dose of humility and you get Abigail Fair!
Abbie co-founded the Great Swamp Watershed Association, was instrumental in the passage of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act and advocated on water-related issues for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) for more than two decades. She was a lifetime gardener and activist.
She passed away on May 17 at the age of 81 in Massachusetts.
Born in Pennsylvania, Abbie spent most of her adult life in the Green Village section of Chatham Township, at the edge of the Great Swamp. Coincidentally – or not – tiny Green Village spawned several other strong female conservation leaders, including Helen Fenske, Sally Dudley and Julia Somers.
“We used to joke that there was something in the water,” said Julia, the former executive director of the Great Swamp Watershed Association and current executive director of the NJ Highlands Coalition.
“Abbie was really just a wonderful person,” said Julia, who considered her a mentor. “She was a humble and self-effacing person, but very effective because she was so well informed. She wanted to share information with everyone.
“She was a beautiful person and had a beautiful personality,” added Julia. “She was a nice, kind and thoughtful person – and would be embarrassed to hear me say that. She will be greatly missed.”
Abbie joined the Chatham Township Planning Board in the 1970s and advocated for better land use planning to combat the suburban sprawl that was turning local farmland into subdivisions.
In 1981, concerned about a large development that would impact a number of surrounding towns, Abbie organized a meeting with several influential people – including her neighbor Helen Fenske, who in the 1960s helped prevent the Great Swamp from being developed into an airport. This meeting led to the co-founding of the Great Swamp Watershed Association, still going strong today.
Two years later, Abbie and the Great Swamp Watershed Association united with other environmental groups, including New Jersey Conservation Foundation and New Jersey Audubon, to pass a state law with strong protections for freshwater wetlands.
Tom Wells, then assistant director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation (and who later worked for the New Jersey Green Acres Program and The Nature Conservancy) said Abbie was critical in getting the legislation passed.
“We ended up building a pretty big coalition,” recalled Tom. “Abbie was with us every minute of the campaign.”
The coalition eventually grew to well over 100 organizations, from large statewide and national groups to small, all-volunteer organizations. “Abbie was the point person for all the communications and outreach to all these groups,” said Tom.
“She was helpful in making sure the campaign hung together. I credit Abbie for a lot of the expansion in the campaign,” he added. “She was a giver. She was really a people person, she loved to work with people and was very passionate about the issue.”
The coalition succeeded in 1987 with the passage of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act.
The following year, Abbie began working for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, informing environmental groups and towns about storm water and septic management. She would stay in that job until her retirement in 2010.
“More than anything, when I think of Abbie it’s her passion I remember,” said Sandy Batty, the retired executive director of ANJEC. “She was a very smart person who could assimilate a lot of information and use it to accomplish things. She was really willing to roll up her sleeves and work hard to get to the nitty-gritty details.”
In 1989, frustrated by the limits of the planning board, Abbie ran for Chatham Township Committee and won, becoming a rare Democrat in a predominantly Republican town. She was re-elected several times, and also served as mayor.
“People recognized her as someone who was totally devoted to the protection of the environment,” said Sandy. “She was unwavering in her dedication.”
On top of all that, said Sandy, Abbie was fun to work with and never harsh. The strongest word she would use to describe people who frustrated her was turkey. “If you were called a turkey by Abbie, you’d better watch out,” said Sandy.
Huge thanks go out to Abbie Fair for all she did to protect clean water and wetlands in New Jersey. She was a true conservation trailblazer, and an inspiration to those who knew her!
To read Abbie’s obituary and see a gallery of photos, go to https://www.keefefuneralhome.com/memorials/abigail-h-fair/4623201/obituary.php.
And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including clean water – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Authors
John S. Watson, Jr.
Michele S. Byers
Executive Director, 1999-2021
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