The State We're In
Catherine “Cam” Cavanaugh: Conservation Trailblazer
As a textbook editor, Catherine M. “Cam” Cavanaugh knew the importance of facts and grammar. As a conservationist, she understood the power of citizen action in protecting treasured places. As a recent retiree after a career of over 40 years, she was feeling bored. And as a volunteer on New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s board of trustees, she wanted to be useful.
So when Cam was asked in the early 1970s to author a definitive history of the battle to keep the ecologically-sensitive Great Swamp in Morris and Somerset counties from being turned into a 10,000-acre airport, she said yes. Her 1978 book, “Saving the Great Swamp: The People, the Power Brokers and an Urban Wilderness,” detailed the David-versus-Goliath fight by a local grassroots organization to stop the mighty Port Authority.
Local residents and libraries snapped up copies of the book, and a number of colleges, including Princeton University, used it in their environmental courses. Four decades later, to Cam’s delight, it became the inspiration for an acclaimed documentary.
Cam Cavanaugh passed away on Dec. 30 at the age of 89. A true conservation trailblazer, the Basking Ridge resident will be remembered for her intelligence, generosity and love of the environment. At the time of her passing, she served as an honorary trustee for New Jersey Conservation Foundation, alongside three former governors and a former Assemblywoman.
“I can think of no one else with the determination to get the story from dozens of sources over such a long period of time and get it perfect,” said David Moore, the executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation at the time Cam’s book was published. “She was absolutely wonderful for the job.”
During her working years, Cam edited textbooks for publisher Silver Burdette while living in the Morristown area with her husband, Clifford. Because of her interest in the environment, she became a New Jersey Conservation Foundation trustee in the early 1970s.
The details of the fight to save the Great Swamp may have been lost to history if not for Cam.
In a 2019 interview, Cam recalled that Kate Bradshaw – secretary to New Jersey Conservation’s founder and first director, Helen Fenske – showed her a metal filing cabinet stuffed with records from the Great Swamp battle.
“She said to me, ‘See these files? They’re going down to the basement. And one of these days they’ll go out the door and the entire history of saving the Great Swamp from a giant jetport will be lost.’ So I looked into the files and was fascinated,” Cam said.
Cam decided the book project sounded like fun, and agreed to donate her time and talent if New Jersey Conservation Foundation would cover her expenses, including a secretary to transcribe taped dictation. Cam was thorough. Her research and writing took four and a half years, including dozens of interviews with those involved. She spent hundreds of hours poring over files in the Morris County Library where more documents were kept. She was frequently invited to tea in homes that would have been razed had the airport become reality.
For those unfamiliar, the battle of the Great Swamp began in December 1959 when the Newark News broke a front-page story about the Port Authority secretly planning to build a “jetport” covering the Great Swamp’s wetlands and surrounding villages.
If the Port Authority thought local residents would roll over and accept the destruction of the swamp and their rural communities, they were wrong. The outcry was immediate, and grassroots opposition quickly mobilized.
Using a clever strategy of rebutting the Port Authority’s arguments on one front while quietly buying up parcels of land for preservation, the citizens were ultimately victorious. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 1964, and New Jersey Conservation Foundation grew out of the group originally known as the Great Swamp Committee.
The Great Swamp victory became a model for how to take on long odds and seemingly invincible political forces. And Cam’s book provided step-by-step instructions for other groups waging conservation battles.
Cam loved local history and also authored “In Lights and Shadows: Morristown in Three Centuries” (1986), and “At Speedwell in the Nineteenth Century” (1981). In addition, she provided invaluable editorial assistance with “Highlands: Treasures at Risk,” published in 1992 by New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Cam provided much needed advice and editorial expertise to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff. This included suggestions for newsletter content, messaging for fundraising campaigns, and even consultations on difficult personnel matters. She had a keen mind combined with great warmth and humor. Every nonprofit should be lucky enough to have a friend like Cam. We were all very fortunate to have known and worked with her and she made us better human beings and conservationists.
Many thanks to Cam for advancing the causes of preserving land and history. She will be greatly missed, and will not be forgotten.
Her book about the Great Swamp provided the factual outline for “Saving the Great Swamp,” the 2017 documentary directed by Scott Morris and narrated by Blythe Danner. The film can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video or ordered on DVD from Amazon. The trailer can be seen at www.savingthegreatswamp.com.
An oral history interview of Cam produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is available at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/document/id/1198/.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, 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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