A new college began taking root in a section of densely wooded pine forest in 1969, but it wasn't long before a wide-reaching mandate from the state would restrict the ability for Richard Stockton State College to build on its property as it pleased.
But the Pinelands Act ultimately fueled Stockton's educational and cultural identity unique to any school in New Jersey - an environmentally focused curriculum and campus that was years ahead of the "green movement."
The school sits on 1,600 acres, but the Pinelands Act restricted the school's development footprint to only 400 acres, leaving vast stretches of land and wetlands untouched. Stockton's collective mindset ultimately became one of creative growth and how best to use its space while exposing students to multiple environmental attributes. That mindset influenced students, generating a unusual level of student environmental activism typically seen at West Coast schools such as the University of California, Berkeley or The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
"We are literally carved into the pinelands," Stockton spokesman Tim Kelly said. "That is just totally unique, probably in the entire world, to have a campus like this, in the middle of protected pinelands."
Stockton, nicknamed the College in the Pines, developed a hallmark curriculum of environmental science and policy, with expansive sections of undeveloped campus as an outdoor classroom. Buildings were to be no taller than the tree line and renewable energy was used, including a geothermal heating and cooling system, well before it became mainstream. A nearby marine field station gave students the ability to learn from the local environment rather than textbooks and laboratory collections.
One of the more recent projects completed was expanding the school's Nacote Creek marine sciences field station and there are plans to apply for additional grants to further develop the station's lab space, station manager Steve Evert said.
Last year the school agreed to preserve an additional 170 acres and, as a result, the Pinelands Commission said the school could develop an extra 151 acres of its property. But for a growing school that amount still requires Stockton to be creative in how it uses its space. Future development plans now call for ripping up parking lots and turning them into a park-like quad setting and building parking garages beneath new buildings to maximize space, Kelly said.
Late one April evening, a group of undergraduate students went for a wetlands hike in the dark to help count the number of frogs in ponds on the edge of the school's property. To get there, entomology professor Jamie Cromartie drove over narrow sandy roads carved through the dense forest - all on the school's property. The data students collected was added to more than a decade's worth of similar information also collected by students over the years. The moment was one of many where students and faculty use the undeveloped acreage as a learning opportunity.
Cromartie, who has taught at Stockton for years, said the school's environmental focus provides a critical level of education for those students who ultimately move on to work at state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection. Other students have gone on to be world-class research biologists because they had the chance to study the pine barrens up close during their first years of higher education. "The Pinelands Act certainly saved for us a huge amount of living laboratory," Cromartie said.
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