WEST ORANGE, NJ – In response to hearing about Essex County’s plans to expand the Turtle Back Zoo spending $8 million to build an additional amphitheater despite pushback from community members—including a growing list of nearly 12,000 residents who have petitioned to stop expansion—a group of students and adults recently formed the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation in order to protest against the new project.
The coalition is hosting its first event—a youth-led “Rally to Save the Reservation”—in front of the Turtle Back Zoo on Sunday, March 1 at noon.
According to the coalition’s website, the rally will be led by local youth because children and teens are the community’s “most eloquent and compelling spokespeople for our future.”
“We cannot and will not allow the reservation to be destroyed,” the coalition announced on its official Instagram page. “We need to fight to protect our natural resource.”
Svanfridur Mura, student activist and an eighth grader from Roosevelt Middle School in West Orange, is spearheading the event alongside Columbia High School students Zoe Newman and Andrea Rembimbas.
As a group, the three teens have organized the time and location of the rally in addition to compiling a list of speakers, according to Mura. Speakers will include a mix of students and adults from various organizations who will discuss “the various negative effects the zoo project will have on the community,” Mura added.
Mura expects a healthy turnout of more than 500 Essex County residents, including students from environmental clubs from several local middle schools and high schools as well as residents who have either heard about or joined the coalition.
“This protest is an important show of pushback by the residents,” said Mura. “In the many meetings that the town has held about this round of zoo expansion, countless residents have spoken out against the project, but the town has brushed us aside in favor of the revenue that the zoo will bring in.”
It should be noted that the Township of West Orange does not have authority over Essex County projects.
“This is following a wide and disturbing pattern that is appearing in the U.S. from the local to the federal level: politicians are listening to money, not the citizens they represent, and this is causing widespread loss of protections from wildland,” said Mura. “Now, in the midst of an environmental crisis, is when we need wild spaces like South Mountain Reservation the most to preserve our health and the health of our planet.”
Mura impressed that it is vital for residents—and especially students—to attend this event “to show that they won’t stand for this and to force the members of the community remember who they are serving.”
“Of course, everyone has various reasons for getting involved in the project,” she said. “But the main goal is to show our opposition to this project because of the deforestation, the increased noise and congestion, the large amount of money being spent, etc. and [to] show the county that we won’t step back and let them do to our communities what they will.