Had it not been for Marcellus Hartley Dodge, Helen Fenske and the activists they inspired, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and its designated wilderness in New Jersey would have become the New York metro area’s fourth (and largest) airport.

In the late 1950s, Dodge, a conservationist and Remington Arms Co. chairman, “injected momentum” into the effort to save the Great Swamp, according to current refuge manager Bill Koch. In the 1960s, Fenske, a housewife and mother of three, became a tireless promoter of the effort.

Even though the refuge had been established in 1960, transportation officials continued to propose the jetport on the land 25 air miles west of Times Square. But Dodge and Fenske, who lived nearby, did not give up. Dodge worked behind the scenes and brought in the North American Wildlife Foundation. Fenske was “one of many activists,” says Koch. “She was the face of it.”

Dodge died in 1963, the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964, and transportation officials still sought the airport. Fenske, Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr. and others used the act to full advantage. In 1968, part of Great Swamp Refuge became the Department of the Interior’s first designated wilderness—on the condition that a road and structures be removed and wetlands be restored.

“It’s more wilderness today than it was in 1968,” says Koch. “It’s actually striking. Many visitors are really surprised. You don’t know you’re still in New Jersey when you come to the refuge.”

The 1978 book “Saving the Great Swamp: The People, the Power Brokers and an Urban Wilderness” by Cam Cavanaugh recounts the saga. Fenske became a major environmental advocate in New Jersey and promoted the establishment of Wallkill River and Cape May Refuges before her death in 2007.

A Zipline to Wilderness

Photo of Nyssa Landress
Refuge System wilderness fellow Nyssa Landres prepares to use a zipline to go from non–wilderness Southeast Farallon Island to designated wilderness West End Island at Farallon National Wildlife Refuge off California. (Nora Livingston)

At Farallon National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of California, when conservationists need to go from Southeast Farallon Island to West End Island, they get there via a zipline.

They do so because rocky West End Island is designated wilderness and the zipline enables the refuge to comply with the Wilderness Act of 1964’s prohibition of motorized transportation in wilderness areas. In accordance with the act, no boat is used, no helicopter, just a zipline.

“It makes a statement about wilderness,” says Refuge System wilderness fellow Nyssa Landres. “A small anchor in the rock is as far as we’re going to go.”

The distance is just 50 or 60 feet, and “it’s actually more of a haul line than a zipline,” says Landres, who helped install a new line last summer. “It creates this mentality of separation” that didn’t exist when a footbridge crossed the water decades ago.

Because it is wilderness, refuge staff members visit 70–acre West End Island infrequently and don’t stay long—seven times a year and a total of 20 person hours annually, Landres estimates. When they do go, though, the zipline is the mode of transport.

“It’s not as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still pretty cool,” Landres says. “There are waves crashing underneath you, and there are sea lions playing. It’s not for everybody, but I love it.”

Wilderness Review As Part of CCP

Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge is the only refuge without designated wilderness to have completed a wilderness review of its habitat as part of its comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) and recommended designating wilderness as a result. The Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Secretary of the Interior and members of Congress have followed suit in recommending that 13 of the refuge’s islands be designated as wilderness.

“To qualify for wilderness designation, an area generally has to be at least 5,000 acres and roadless, or any sized roadless island,” says Maine Coastal Islands Refuge manager Beth Goettel, who arrived after the 2005 CCP was completed. “Obviously, we had lots of islands to consider—42 at the time of the CCP. The first step was to inventory all the areas that might qualify, then evaluate them for naturalness and opportunities for solitude or primitive or unconfined recreation. We also considered whether the islands could be managed successfully to retain their wilderness values.”

However, Goettel notes, wilderness areas may be established only by Congress. As recently as April 2013, Rep. Mike Michaud introduced legislation to designate the 13 islands—Outer Heron, Outer White, Little Marshall, John’s, Bois Bubert, Inner Sand, Halifax, Cross, Inner Double Head Shot, Outer Double Head Shot, Mink, Scotch and Old Man—as cumulative 3,125 acres of wilderness.

The Wilderness Society and the Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands both support such a designation at Maine Coastal Island Refuge, but the legislation has not yet been passed.

Clearing Trail, Respecting Wilderness

Photo of crew clearing canoe trail
A volunteer crew at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia received an award for adhering as closely as possible to the principles and protocols of the Wilderness Act of 1964 while maintaining canoe trails. (USFWS)

A volunteer crew at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director Honor Award last year for adhering as closely as possible to the principles and protocols of the Wilderness Act of 1964 while maintaining canoe trails through the Georgia refuge’s 350,000–acre designated wilderness area.

The crew, known as the Okefenokee Trail Team, was composed of six men and four women. They were overseen by then–refuge manager Curt McCasland, who has since become a supervisor in the Service’s Pacific Southwest Region.

“Some donated three months of their time to cut out fallen trees and overgrown shrubs that blocked many of the refuge’s 120 miles of paddling trails,” the Southeast Region said in announcing the award. “They battled icy dawns and lingering drought conditions that exposed huge logs hidden beneath the tannic–acid water for more than a century. These logs had to be lifted out of the canoe trails with cables and hand–powered winches because the refuge is a Class 1 Wilderness area. One cypress log weighed between 15,000 to 18,000 pounds and took five people a half–day to remove it. The team observed all wilderness area protocols utilizing hand tools wherever possible and keeping trips to and from the worksite to an absolute minimum.”

More than 40,000 visitors use the water trails annually at Okefenokee Refuge, where they might see alligators, turtles, snakes, wading birds, butterflies, dragonflies and other wildlife in a vast wilderness setting.