Outdoor school: How Great Swamp Watershed Association uses grant from Wells Fargo to teach thousands of students about nature at its Conservation Management Area

Here’s the really cool thing about the Conservation Management Area of the Great Swamp Watershed, a 55-square mile region in Morris and Somerset counties that is run by the Great Swamp Watershed Association.

The group that oversees the area has created an educational area — complete with more than 3 miles of boardwalk — that more than 1,500 schoolchildren each year travel on to learn about nature and how it impacts their lives and the health of the planet from the group’s four educators.

Here’s the really important thing about the CMA: Visits not only bring exposure to the natural world and how one of nature’s ecosystems works, but the educational lessons presented on any given day could spur a lifetime of interest, creating the next generation of scientists and conservationists.

That’s one of the reasons why Lynne Applebaum, director of institutional relations at the Great Swamp Watershed Association, is so passionate about what she does and where she works.

Lynne Applebaum

“It’s the uniqueness of the property,” she said. “The school trips are great because the kids actually interact with nature. We do water quality sampling, so they can see, ‘What does it look like to sample for a macro invertebrate?’ 

“We examine what kind of creatures are able to live in this water, which gives them an indication of what the water quality is like. ‘Is this water safe? Is it clean enough? Is it chemically sound enough for creatures, like crayfish, to live in that water?’ And that’s just one example.”

She notes students can analyze how streams are flowing — and what that means. They can do plant identification. They can look for unique species such as the wood turtle and barred owl, two federally designated threatened species.

“And we have platforms on the boardwalk, where the students can stop in the middle of the wooded area and have a lesson right there,” she said.

The GSWA, which has origins in the 1960s but officially came to be in the ’80s, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

And, while it does not charge students — or the thousands of other annual visitors — it does need money to operate.


As Wells Fargo’s community relations vice president for New Jersey, Tomas Porturas is responsible for regionwide community impact and sustainability initiatives. Put another way, Porturas gets to be part of a team that provides grants to dozens of impactful nonprofit initiatives.

This is why the Wells Fargo Foundation’s efforts to help the Watershed are so important to him.

For starters, it’s personal: One member of his family is a botanist, another is a doctor. He brings an engineering background to the role. Porturas gets the idea of being one with nature.

“We started to support the Watershed a few years ago, when sustainability became one of our core focus areas,” he said. “And, when we talk about sustainability, we talk about lowering CO2 emissions, we talk about energy efficiency, but we also need to talk about the importance of protecting nature.”

“This is something people don’t always understand: If we don’t protect our water and our air and our environment, how are we going to live — what is our future going to be like?”

The Wells Fargo Foundation, he said, was thrilled to donate a $20,000 grant that goes to maintaining the facility and the educational programs that go with it.

“This is a true win-win situation,” he said. “I just love the program and the hands-on experience they give the kids and adults.”

And, while the Watershed does have programs that go into the classroom, Porturas loves the fact that so much of the learning is done outside.

Tomas Porturas

“When I was a kid, my parents had to call me in at the end of the day,” he said. “Now, it’s the opposite. We have to push kids outside.

“This program helps kids understand nature — and possibly helps create a scientist of the future. What could be more important that?”


While the GSWA’s Conservation Management Area is located in Harding, a very rural township in Morris County, Applebaum said the lessons learned impact all areas of New Jersey.

“We provide environmental education to schools across the Watershed,” she said. “So, it can be in our immediate area, Morristown, or any of the other areas in the Watershed area, including Paterson, Newark and Orange.

“The education can be tailored to where the students are from. Some of the environmental issues that might occur here will be different in a more urban area. We teach it all. The kids are not only getting an education about environmentalism, but a good science education.”

Part of that process is taking education to the schools.

Applebaum said the Watershed works with Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources program in a number of ways, including building rain gardens at schools.

“There are a lot of different ways that we teach students about what we do and where their water comes from — where it goes and what impacts it,” she said.

It’s all part of the GSWA’s “One River, One Community” vision. The Watershed’s website talks about a future in which all the region’s citizens understand that the health of the Watershed is integrally connected to the quality of their daily lives. 

“We imagine a time in which residents, businesses and governments along the Passaic work actively and cooperatively to protect and promote clean, safe water, and in turn are rewarded with a bountiful environment that supplies healthy water for drinking and recreation, provides controls for flooding and erosion, supports abundant vegetation and wildlife and forever inspires with its natural beauty,” the Watershed’s website says.

It’s a challenge, but one Applebaum said is well worth taking on.

“The environmental education piece is really important, because, if we don’t educate future environmentalists, the problems will not get better,” she said. “So, it’s important that we share that knowledge and that the kids get to experience what it is that they are living with, and what they will be living as they become adults.

“Support from Wells Fargo and others is key.”


Porturas said that as the Bank of Doing, Wells Fargo is happy to do its part — and that role includes more than just financial assistance. Porturas said the bank’s employees volunteer, too.

“This is an incredible area,” he said. “It not only serves as a platform to educate people, but it also serves as a place for wildlife to exist in New Jersey. 

“Let’s face it, we call New Jersey the Garden State, but we haven’t been doing enough to protect these areas. We need to remember why we call it the Garden State.”

Conversation Starter

Learn more about programs to help your small business at: wellsfargo.com/about/corporate-responsibility/community-giving/.

Want to help?

The Great Swamp Watershed Association oversees the 73-acre wetland preserve and provides educational programming for students and adults. Its goal is to protect the water and the land for a healthier environment, now and in the future.

The GSWA relies on donations and grants. Go to greatswamp.org/donate/ to find out how you or your company can help.

Want to visit?

The Conservation Management Area of the Great Swamp Watershed has two trailheads on Tiger Lily Lane in Morristown. The main trail entrance is located at the end of the cul-de-sac. The Horizon Trail is located approximately halfway down the road. 

The GSWA encourages visitors to wear appropriate footwear, as trails can be wet, muddy and slippery.  Stay on the trails for your safety. Dogs on leash are welcome. Trails are open from dawn to dusk, except as noted during hunting season. 

The CMA is close to Exit 33 on 287. Use 1 Tiger Lily Lane in Morristown on your GPS.