Legacy of beloved Peter J. Barnes III to be honored at sign unveiling ceremony

A sign unveiling ceremony celebrating the renaming of the Dismal Swamp in honor of the late Peter J. Barnes III will be held at the Songbird Trail entrance of the wildlife refuge.

The event, which is open to the public, will take place Oct. 30 at 11 a.m. on the corner of Nevsky Street and Fleet Avenue in Edison, where Barnes was a lifelong resident and served on the township council.

In August, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation renaming the Dismal Swamp the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve and renaming the regulatory body that oversees the 660-acre conservation area the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preservation Commission.

Among the countless contributions Barnes made during his tenure as an environmentally conscious state legislator – he served the General Assembly for seven years and the State Senate for three years before being sworn in as a Superior Court Judge in Middlesex County in 2016 – was to preserve the Dismal Swamp.

The renaming of the area and the commission charged with its oversight is a fitting tribute to Barnes, whose impact was as vast as the preserve itself and as varied as the nearly 200 species of birds that have inhabited the natural oasis.

In honor of Barnes, who died Feb. 22 at the age of 64, an 8-foot by 5-foot sign bearing his image and the words “Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve” will be unveiled at the Oct. 30 ceremony, during which state legislators and other dignitaries will deliver speeches.

Middlesex County Commissioner Charles Tomaro, a dear friend of Barnes who launched an online fundraising campaign for the sign’s purchase, said Barnes would be “quite embarrassed” by the public display of affection.

“Pete was a humble man who truly believed in public service,” Tomaro said. “Pete never sought accolades — or any sort of recognition — for everything he accomplished to make Edison Township, to make communities in the 18th Legislative District, and across New Jersey a better place for people and families.”

Tomaro said the outpouring of support for the sign’s purchase resulted in a surplus, which will be allocated toward the establishment of a memorial scholarship in Barnes’ name.

The scholarship will be awarded annually to a student at John P. Stevens High School – from which Barnes graduated in 1974 – whose future studies include the environment and climate change.

The Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve represents one of the last remaining wetland ecosystems in a highly urbanized environment of the state.

Twenty-five mammals and more than a dozen reptile and amphibian species have been sighted in the preserve, while archeological digs in the area have uncovered at least five significant archeological sites, including one more than 10,000 years old.

“Pete Barnes was successful in so many areas, but his work to preserve open space and protect the Dismal Swamp were crowning achievements,” Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) said.

“The preservation area would not be the wonderful place it is except for Pete’s dedication and focus. Every time someone celebrates the beauty of nature by walking the preserve, they will be celebrating what Pete Barnes was all about.”

Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex), a high school classmate and longtime friend of Barnes, said the wildlife preserve – which spans Edison, Metuchen, and South Plainfield – is a “merited tribute to Peter’s effort and dedication toward protecting the land.”

Through those efforts, the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve holds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Federal Priority Wetlands status.

“Naming the conservation area after Peter is a wonderful way to honor and recognize his dedication to Middlesex County,” Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex) said.

Diegnan and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) sponsored the bill to rename the conservation area in Barnes’ memory in the Senate, while Karabinchak, Stanley and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) sponsored the legislation in the Assembly.

During a bill signing ceremony in August, Murphy noted the original moniker of the wildlife preserve starkly contrasted Barnes’ personality and that the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve certainly “has a better ring to it than Dismal Swamp.”

“There is a little bit of irony that Pete poured so much of himself into the preservation of a place known as Dismal Swamp because anyone who knew Pete knew how life, to him, was anything but dismal,” Murphy said.

“He saw beauty in everything. He found joy and purpose in everything he did. These wetlands are a place of wonder and beauty, a home to hundreds of species of animals, and a place where people come to reflect, find purpose and, yes, have some fun.

“This place is not dismal, not in the least. Neither was Pete. And now the two – the man and the place – will be remembered together, as they should be.”

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