Youth leaders organize action party to save South Mountain Reservation

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By Svanfridur Mura / Youth Correspondent

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — On Saturday, March 7, more than a dozen young people and adults set to work in a room in the Maplewood Senior Center. Scattered among tables, the air thrummed with a steady stream of calls and in a corner a lively discussion about gun control drifted out the door. In the background, a student serenaded the room with a piano performance as people crafted signs reading “Save Our Reserve” and postcards to local officials urging them to act on behalf of their constituents.

Minutes earlier, Maplewood Township Committeewoman Nancy Adams had addressed the group. “My disappointment has been with the other townships that this is going to impact and their lack of willingness to stand up against this project.” She concluded that for this reason, “it’s really important for the elected officials to hear from you,” encouraging attendees to call and write their local governments.

For the past few months, controversy has been stirring around the proposed 500-seat amphitheater to be added to Turtle Back Zoo. The creation of the amphitheater, which the county is calling a “conservation pavilion,” will take 1.5 acres from South Mountain Reservation. So far, the West Orange Township Council and the Maplewood Township Committee have passed resolutions calling for the county to halt zoo expansion, at least until more studies are done and the county includes input from constituents. More than 12,000 residents, primarily from West Orange, Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn, have signed a petition opposing the project, strongly calling for the execution of an environmental impact assessment.

Stemming from a local group called Our Green West Orange, the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation was created. The group consists of many members from the community and numerous other environmental clubs and organizations throughout the county. The group started the petition and organized a March 1 rally in front of the Turtle Back Zoo that attracted more than 350 people. Members of the coalition and signers of the petition argue that the zoo is expanding more than it should, citing concerns about  deforestation without a state-mandated environmental impact report, animal welfare, increased congestion and noise pollution, and diverting funds toward the construction of a performance center when those funds could be spent in more vital areas.

To keep the momentum of this resistance going, student leaders organized the March 7 event in Maplewood. The action party was part of a phone-banking campaign started by the youth division that targeted county and state officials. Students and adults have been attempting to flood the phones of County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., NJ Gov. Phil Murphy, the Essex County Board of Freeholders and others with calls, all saying the same thing: “Essex County residents do not want this amphitheater.” The goal is to drown officials in requests to block the project and show them firsthand the extent of the opposition to the expansion.

“The county is expanding the zoo in the name of conservation education for students,” said youth leader Andrea Rembimbas, who is also a leader of the Environmental Club at Columbia High School in Maplewood. “It’s frustrating that the freeholders are not listening to us because we are the students who would be ‘benefiting from this expansion.’ If the county truly cares about its students they would listen to our needs.”

“We need to have Joseph DiVincenzo hear our voices,” added Jordan Muhammad, another leading member of the youth division, who is a leader of the Students for Justice Club at Columbia High School. “So calling, especially having youth call, is important because it’s a sign that the people he is supposedly building the amphitheater for are the people who want it least.”

The youth team hopes to meet with DiVincenzo in an effort to dissuade him from going through with the project. They also aim to convince Essex County towns to pass resolutions against the amphitheater in the hopes of convincing the county legislation before the bids for the project are submitted Friday, March 13.

“Students and teachers respect the zoo’s attempt to increase environmental education,” youth said in their calls yesterday to local officials, “but they ask that the county instead prioritize the educational value of the reservation and the practical value of a green future.”

“I oppose the amphitheater, because it goes against the climate justice that we are striving for today,” said Kareena Salvi, a Drew University student and political science major. “With our environment falling apart around the world we need to take a stand now to create a change. … For now, we need to focus on what we can do.”

Sevenfriday Mura is one of the original youth leaders of the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation and is the student leader of the Environmental Club at Roosevelt Middle School in West Orange.