Remembering Ella Filippone

“…the river is a toxic disgrace that needs to be cleaned up. ‘It’s government at its worst,’ she said.”New York Times, July 12, 2009

I’m going to get right to the point here. That’s how Ella would have wanted it.

Ella Filippone was one tough broad, not afraid to take on anyone. You either loved her, or hated her. It’s that simple. And Ella honestly didn’t care.

Love her or hate her, there are few people who would argue the fact that New Jersey’s environmental community lost a bold, brash, and tireless advocate with her death on Friday, June 21, 2013.

Ella was a friend and a mentor to me, as she was for so many others during her 43 years as the Passaic River Coalition’s Executive Director.

My relationship with Ella didn’t start that way. We’re both very headstrong and opinionated people, and when we first met, I’m not sure she knew what to think of me. But over time, as we worked side by side on Highlands issues and projects and she cautiously assessed my character and motives, Ella took a liking to me. If you gained acceptance into her circle of trusted associates, you had no greater friend than Ella.

She was someone who always had words of encouragement when it seemed I needed them most. At difficult times during environmental or political challenges, it would not be uncommon for Ella to respond to a piece in the media, or an email discussion, with a simple note like, “Scott: Rock on! You’re doing a great job! Ella.”

Nor was it unusual to receive notes of praise after successes. I woke up the morning after my re-election in 2011, and one of the first emails I received was from Ella: “Great news — a good guy won! Congratulations! Ella.”

I’ll miss those simple, uplifting moments.

In many ways, Ella was one of the outliers to the ‘mainstream’ environmental community. I think that’s why we got along so well, as we both enjoy that role. She wasn’t afraid to take on ‘conventional wisdom,’ butt heads with those who didn’t share her view, or to follow her own path, because she knew where that path was going. And she was happy to share that journey with like-minded individuals who chose to tag along.

During the long, contentious process of the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP), a rag-tag, impromptu group of outliers was formed. One that we affectionately nicknamed the ‘Northern Alliance’ as a reference to the rebel Afghani freedom fighters by the same name.  Consisting of Ella, Robin O’Hearn, then executive director of Skylands CLEAN, Ross Kushner, executive director of the Pequannock River Coalition and myself – we vigorously opposed weak water protection standards in the RMP that we felt the other ‘mainstream’ and far more well-funded organizations were ignoring.

We went to great lengths to draw public attention to the shortfalls of the RMP, going so far as renting vans and taking members of the press on a tour of areas where we found fault with the plan. “It’s the water, stupid,” became a recurring theme. As Ella so eloquently testified before a Highlands Council hearing on the draft RMP, It must be recognized that accommodation to growth, regardless of the manner in which it is done, will require water…The consequences to public health will be severe if the focus on the water is not stringently made clear.”

Pointing out our issues so loudly and repetitively drew the scorn of the Highlands Council executive director, chief counsel, and chairman on a number of occasions. In the end, it brought about much needed changes to the RMP, especially in areas of lake, river and stream protection in the important Highlands headwaters. A victory for the little guys! Upon completion of that hard work, we gathered for a ‘victory celebration’ that became an annual tradition – the ‘Northern Alliance’ Holiday Lunch.

I’ll miss those afternoons of dining and discussion.

Ella did so much work with so little in the way of resources, in perhaps the most diverse, sprawling and impacted watersheds in the nation. According to Ella’s bio from her National River Hero award, presented by the River Network, In 1969, the Passaic River was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of the two most polluted rivers in the United States. But that didn’t stop Ella. She knew that in order to “keep our streams and rivers clean, we have to give them a clean start by protecting their headwaters. Preserving the forests and wetlands that surround headwater streams is the most effective way to protect the quality of the water, and to ensure there is an adequate amount of water flowing in them.” That, among other things, is just what she set about doing. And doing well.

A good example of Ella’s ability to do more with less is the Farm House at Highlands Meadows. The ‘Highlands Mist’ banner at the top of this blog is a photo taken by Robin O’Hearn from this parcel that Ella, in collaboration with the Passaic County Open Space Committee, preserved at the Monksville Reservoir in Ringwood. Before closing their doors, Skylands CLEAN intended to share offices with the Passaic River Coalition in an old farmhouse there. Ella did her wheeling and dealing, and the farmhouse was restored through the support of Ringwood contractor Ron Houser and Son and private donors, with The Home Depot, Benjamin Moore, Tilcon, and CertainTeed supplying construction materials. Dozens of similar success stories of Ella’s work exist throughout the Passaic River watershed.

It could take days to detail all that Ella Filippone has done for environmental causes in New Jersey and New York. For just a small sampling of information on Ella’s battles and accomplishments, you may be interested in reading the following:

In lieu of flowers or other gifts the family kindly ask that you honor Ella’s memory by making a contribution to the Passaic River Coalition, so that her work of protecting the watershed of central and northern New Jersey can continue.

Per Ella’s wishes, a Memorial Service will take place at Willow Hall, the headquarters of the Passaic River Coalition, at 330 Speedwell Avenue, Morristown, NJ 07960 on Saturday, July 13, 2013 from 12pm to 4pm.

That big, old house in Morristown – the Coalition’s headquarters – is going to seem very quiet and empty now, without Ella’s unmistakable voice echoing through the halls. But there are over 1,500 acres of New Jersey’s most precious natural resources that are permanently preserved – thanks to her efforts – where that same silence and solitude will evoke Ella’s memory for many generations to come.

Rest in peace, my friend. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *