Citizen expertise and citizen action in the creation of the freshwater wetlands protection act

Heather Fenyk, David Guston

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


The 401 State Street, Trenton, address of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection shelters a small plaza with park benches and flowers. The plaza's floor is paved in part with carved marble slabs depicting natural scenes in relief. Some of the slabs depict wildlife. Some of the slabs are labeled with environmental concerns: water quality, water resources, natural lands, and lakes management. There is no slab for wetlands. The story of how the state's freshwater wetlands merited attention, and protection, is one of the most interesting and important chapters in New Jersey's environmental history. It culminated with the passage of the state's Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act (FWPA), which, on July 1, 1987, made New Jersey the first state in the nation to completely assume administration of the portion of the federal Clean Water Act that protects wetlands, giving New Jersey the nation's strongest measures to protect these ecologically and environmentally valuable lands. Critical to this story of New Jersey's achievement is the recognition of wetlands as an environment worthy of protection and an environmental issue worthy of pursuit, and the ability of a small group of citizens to synthesize substantive knowledge about wetlands with effective political action to preserve them. This chapter relates two intertwined paths. The first follows the emergence of wetlands protection as a critical environmental concern in the state. In this instance, four citizen-experts-all women-helped create and organize the knowledge base that demonstrated the value of wetlands beyond that of wastelands. The second path follows the activity of the coherent, statewide environmental advocacy movement that emerged from citizen action. In this instance, citizen-advocates engaged in a sophisticated grassroots lobbying effort that made freshwater wetlands protection a force to be reckoned with. Both paths are set in the context of inadequate and fragmented state and federal attempts to protect wetlands. In the last several decades, planners and policy makers throughout the United States have faced the challenges of understanding and balancing the biologic and economic impacts of anthropogenic environmental change. Within accounts of the interaction of the environmental and the social, examples of how citizen expertise interacts with environmental governance are in short supply. Through documenting the convergence of these paths in the Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act, we trace the emergence in New Jersey of an environmental movement as both a well-informed and popular enterprise. This portrait of the technical and political competence of the environmental movement is important because traditional views usually depict expertise and advocacy as conflicting rather than cooperating endeavors, and because the synthesis of substantive knowledge with political power at the grassroots level is usually identified as a contemporary rather than historical phenomenon, when it is identified at all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNew Jersey's Environments
Subtitle of host publicationPast, Present, and Future
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780813539225
ISBN (Print)9780813537184
StatePublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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