Testimonies attributed to The Religious Society of Friends — or Quakers — are commonly defined as integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the Earth, and peace. In the secular world, it is safe to say that any sound friendship relies on integrity, equality, simplicity and peace. And that any society of friends would add community and stewardship of the Earth to its purpose. Though it helps to be conscientious, you don’t need to get religion to be a Friend!
Friends groups, as we know them in relation to many of our parks and precious historic sites, are surely bound by their commitment to community and stewardship. Always not-for-profit and volunteer driven, with the occasional paid executive director, Friends groups connect people to natural places, as well as to our heritage, while enhancing the role of public lands in local communities. They create events and festivals, hold concerts and art shows, invent educational programs, staff museums and visitor centers, and serve as tour guides. They write, apply for, administer, and direct grant programs that stabilize and improve infrastructure. And they do the heavy lifting, raising funds to make it all possible, while seeing to all the intricacies of properly running a charitable organization accountable to the IRS.
Friends groups come in all shapes and sizes. On the federal level, most national parks look to their Friends Group —although it might alternately be called a conservancy, partnership, foundation, trust, society, alliance or association —for access to resources that otherwise would be unavailable. In our region, the Washington Association of New Jersey, one of the oldest historic preservation organizations in the nation, was chartered by the New Jersey legislature in 1874 as the not-for-profit advisory and fundraising body for the Morristown National Historical Park, and whose mission is to preserve and maintain the Jacob Ford Mansion, also known as Washington’s Headquarters. The Friends of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area help, with manpower and fundraising, a dedicated but vastly underfunded Park Service staff to maintain 60,000 acres of parkland and scores of buildings along both shores of the Delaware River. On the Jersey side, the Millbrook Village Society pays particular attention to the re-fabricated hamlet in Hardwick that enchants so many people on their travels along Old Mine Road.
Friends organizations also support 280 national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts across the country. Some forty thousand people belong to 185 refuge Friends groups nationwide raising an estimated $15 million for conservation. In Northwest New Jersey, organizations at the Wallkill River and Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuges are critical to their vitality.
Park systems in most states also organize and endorse Friends groups to enhance their capabilities. In New Jersey the Volunteers in Parks (VIP) Program affords citizens the opportunity to participate in the stewardship of the state’s natural and historic resources that have been entrusted to the Division of Parks and Forestry. The VIP Program is comprised of individual volunteers or volunteer organizations that are sometimes actively solicited and formed by park staff. Several of the sixteen state parks and forests in Northwest New Jersey enjoy support from groups that take on a variety of assignments. The Friends of High Point State Park provide “funds, materials, and voluntary services for which no government funds or resources are readily available” throughout the park. Within the park, the Heritage and Agriculture Association — AKA Friends of Lusscroft Farm — works to stabilize and restore the buildings at the historic farm in order to create an agricultural heritage center there. At Stokes State Forest, the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation have formed in order to save the recently closed campus that has welcomed students, campers, counselor, teachers and researchers there for seventy years. The Friends of Long Pond Ironworks is an officially recognized Friends Organization of the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry that cares for the Long Pond Ironworks Historic District, within the Ringwood State Park System. There are others, and there will be many more.
Within county domains, Friends are busy as well. Since 1972, The Friends of The Frelinghuysen Arboretum has promoted public awareness of horticulture, cultural landscapes, and the natural world at Morris County Park Commission’s horticultural sites. More recently the Friends of Warren County Parks have coordinated to maximize the potential of the county’s scenic vistas and heritage greenways. At the very local level, the genesis of a Friends group is often a step that signals the maturity of an initiative to preserve a specific structure or heritage site.
If you’re look for things to do this spring, investigate the event schedules of dozens of Friends groups in Northwest New Jersey. Better yet, look into joining! Friends don’t really do this for nothing; it is immensely satisfying. Want to get yourself on an outdoor activity schedule? Be a Friend! Want to learn something about forestry or flowers? Find out the secrets about your local park or the dusty details of your town and where it came from? Be a Friend! And while you’re at it, you’re sure to make some new friends!