Conserve Wildlife Blog

Women & Wildlife 2019 Legacy Award Honoree Wilma Frey

October 2nd, 2019

Wilma Frey with her well-worn copy of the Highlands Regional Master Plan, completed in 2006. Photo by: Sandy Perry.

Wilma Frey is the Senior Policy Manager at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. She has more than five decades of environmental and planning advocacy experience and masters’ degrees from Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, fifteen years apart. Wilma has fought to stop oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, battled the PennEast Pipeline here in New Jersey, enjoys dancing and has learned the secret to giving frogs and toads head scratches.

Wilma has worked with the NJ Conservation Foundation for almost three decades and was instrumental to the successful passage of the state’s Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004.

Throughout the 1990’s, Wilma, as Coordinator for the Highlands Coalition —  at that time a Project of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation —  assisted and coordinated local citizens fighting many large residential developments proposed throughout the seven-county New Jersey Highlands region. These developments would have destroyed forests, farmland, watersheds and wildlife habitat, as well as recreational opportunities and scenic beauty.

When local citizens’ opposition led to the eventual denial of proposed projects by local boards, the properties were frequently later sold voluntarily to the state, local governments or land trusts, when they were preserved with funding from the State’s Green Acres Program, county or municipal open space trust funds, private foundations and individuals.

For example, in Warren County, the proposed site of the 1500-unit Riverwalk development along the Delaware, opposed by the Phillipsburg Riverview Organization and denied by the town, eventually became instead the Pohatcong Grasslands reserve. In Sussex County, a multi-centered golf course community was proposed for nearly the entirety of Sparta Mountain. Several years after preservation efforts galvanized, it became the Sparta Mountain State Wildlife Management Area.

Open space preservation in Morris County, led by the County Park Commission and conservation groups, including the Upper Rockaway River Watershed Association, focused on protecting an area of forest, lakes and reservoirs named the “Farny Highlands.” The area included the Copperas Ridge development proposed for Rockaway Township’s forested mountainsides, which eventually became the Wildcat State Wildlife Management Area. Citizen action enlarged Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Site.  Privately owned hills surrounding the Splitrock Reservoir were preserved as county and state parks.  Similar development vs. preservation battles took place in every Highlands county.

Wilma currently works closely with the New Jersey Highlands Coalition on planning and environmental policy issues involving the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and other state and local agencies, always seeking to ensure full compliance with the DEP Highlands Preservation area rules and the environmental goals, policies and objectives in the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP).

She assists New Jersey Conservation in addressing policy for appropriate siting of carbon-free energy facilities and the mitigation of climate change through carbon sequestration, as well as selected federal issues.  Federal funding for land preservation (the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Highlands Conservation Act) has brought millions of dollars to New Jersey to preserve open space and habitat.

Join us to honor Wilma and the four other 2019 Women & Wildlife Award Honorees on Wednesday, November 13th at 6 PM. Purchase events tickets and find more information.

We asked Wilma a few questions about what inspires her to dedicate her career to New Jersey’s conservation:

Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?

A: It is always interesting and intellectually stimulating, and I learn new things all the time.

Q:   Name one thing you cannot live without

A: Biodiversity.  (And neither can anyone else on this planet, whether they know it or not).

Q: Do you have a New Jersey wildlife species that you like best?”

A: I am particularly fond of our amphibians and reptiles, especially turtles.  They are so vulnerable to development and motor vehicles, and evil people even crush them intentionally.  Did you know that toads and frogs like to be scratched on their heads?  After you have quietly approached a toad and it has not hopped away, try gently scratching it with a long small twig on the top of its head, between the eyes. The creature will stay indefinitely, and may lean from side to side in response to your shifting the place you are scratching.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to change the world for wildlife?

A: Save their habitat! All kinds, for all species.  Especially large pieces, the larger and more contiguous, the better.  As Biologist E. O. Wilson points out “we need to save ‘Half the Earth’ to save the web of biodiversity.” 

And also, hang in there – be persistent and don’t give up!

Q:  What do you find most challenging about your profession?

A: Probably the amount of effort and the length of time that it often takes to make change. And then the reality that the change may be undone, so that “eternal vigilance” is required.  For example, in the 1970’s and ‘80’s I worked in Washington, D.C. with environmental groups that fought to stop oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) coastal plain, a critical wildlife habitat.  We succeeded. Temporarily. For many years.  But now the battle is raging again.

Another story – Appropriate management of national forests for values that include water quality, wildlife, recreation – we thought we did that with the 1976 National Forest Management Act, and with 1980’s Wilderness Society research that demonstrated that many timber sales in our national forests, were in fact “deficit sales,” with the logging roads paid for by US taxpayers costing more than the value of the timber that was taken out.  But now the current Administration is removing many NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requirements and plans to log again without NEPA constraints.                        

Q:  What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working?

A:  Hike.  In the woods.  In the mountains.  I also garden, in the shade. Dancing, any kind.

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