STROUDSBURG, Pa. (AP) — The woman who broke political barriers while playing a key role in stopping the massive Tocks Island dam — a planned 37-mile lake well beyond the shores of the Delaware River — will be honored Oct. 3 for decades of service to conservation.
Nancy Shukaitis, 88, will be the featured speaker at the annual dinner of the Brodhead Watershed Association.
The Brodhead Watershed Association chose to honor Nancy Shukaitis in part so young people and newcomers can learn the role she played in stopping the dam and creating the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
"We're surprised over the last year or two how many people don't know about that controversy," association Executive Director Theresa Merli said. "Nancy Shukaitis is a legend."
The BWA annual dinner will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Shawnee Inn. Carl Wilgus of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau also will speak. Shukaitis will be introduced by Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Superintendent John Donahue.
Tickets are $36 for members and $41 for nonmembers. To register, go to brodheadwatershed.org and click on "annual membership celebration," or call 570-839-1120.
The Tocks Island reservoir would have flooded properties taken by the federal government from about 1,200 owners in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — from Shawnee to Milford. It was to be used for urban drinking water, flood protection, hydroelectricity and recreation.
The Tocks project had nearly unanimous backing in the early 1960s of a multi-agency federal study, Congress and a coalition of four governors and two big city mayors who successfully lobbied for creation of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
The DRBC was an unprecedented agency in which the federal government — through an appointee of the president — was given equal representation with each of the four governors in deciding water issues in the Delaware River basin.
Shukaitis was a Shawnee mother and housewife whose family was to be displaced by the Tocks project.
She had no platform to fight it.
Most married women at that time worked at home and were identified by their husbands' names, along with the title "Mrs."
Shukaitis, supported by her husband, Joe, attended hearings on the Tocks Island dam, to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From that humble beginning, Shukaitis began testifying before government agencies and congressional committees.
At a time when even self-identified "conservationists" touted the value of harnessing a river's waters in service to people, Shukaitis was a pioneer in advocating for natural flood plains, free of development, as a better way to minimize flood damage, maintain water purity and replenish aquifers for drinking water.
"You would find a lot of things were founded on question marks," Shukaitis said. "By the time the public finds out, if the public has an opinion, they say, 'We've already decided that.'"
She favored smaller flood control dams on Delaware River tributaries, such as the Brodhead Creek, where 78 people were killed in Monroe County during the 1955 flood. There were no county deaths along the Delaware, she would point out to people who used the flood as justification for a large Delaware River reservoir.
Shukaitis testified in Washington before Congress and demanded to know why committee members didn't hold a hearing in the five-county, two-state region where the dam was proposed.
Local people deserved a full explanation of the recreation area concept for the Tocks lake, she said.
Demanded to be heard
"I had given testimony on March 1, 1965, in which I itemized five categories of citizens as 'several segments of the population which are systematically excluded from attending hearings on matters which they should be familiarized,'" Shukaitis recalled.
This included the poor, elderly and working populations of the Tocks region.
Congress never holds hearings outside the Capitol, she was told by committee members. Shukaitis persisted.
"They have staff that know more than any congressman. And that committee chairman was so mad! He said, 'Don't think we're going to go to every nook and cranny across the country.'"
Afterward, a small group of reporters approached Shukaitis and gave her some advice. She was being abused, they told her.
"The next time he does that," one reporter told Shukaitis, "say, 'Let the record show the chairman was out of control.'"
Shukaitis never acted on that advice, but she continued her quest.
The committee relented and held a 1965 hearing at East Stroudsburg High School. At the forum, she criticized federal agencies for publishing a map as early as 1961 in area newspapers showing a proposed national park surrounding the dam, yet never sharing that information directly with those who would have their properties taken for the project.
"But even before 1960, when the farmers were tilling their fields, cutting brush in the August sun, fighting fires, and 'earning their salt' as we call it, a very few persons who had to be acquainted with the Tocks Island Dam were silently preparing the map," she told the committee.
"My point," she said recently, "was to show that the feds had not dealt with citizens in accord with the Bill of Rights, which pledges to us that human rights are sovereign and that our forefathers established our rights practicing an attitude of fairness and temperate tones."
Building a coalition
But Shukaitis needed allies. Shukaitis and other women and men — primarily people slated to lose their homes to Tocks — formed the Delaware Valley Conservation Association in 1966. The association sued the federal government on behalf of 600 landowners, but a court eventually dismissed the suit.
She became increasingly active as a volunteer in the Monroe County Republican Party. In November 1967, Shukaitis was elected the first female Monroe County commissioner.
The Tocks Island project remained alive and well, though federal funding slowed due to the Vietnam war and war on poverty. Enough Tocks funding was coming in to continue forced property acquisitions, known as eminent domain.
Shukaitis helped steer the Tocks Island Regional Advisory Council — a six-county, three-state group of elected officials planning for the impacts of Tocks growth — from a pro-dam to a more neutral stance.
The National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1970, required an extensive environmental review of all federal projects, including Tocks Island. The act helped prompt formation of the Save the Delaware Coalition, encompassing environmental groups like DVCA, community groups and hunting and fishing organizations. Together they raised issues about the viability of the dam, from potential loss of fish to possible unstable ground at the dam site.
New federal environmental regulators demanded more details from the Army Corps.
A major concern raised by Shukaitis and others was that the still waters of a Tocks lake, fed by upstate New York chicken and cow manure, would create an algae plume that would choke off oxygen to river life.
Support for dam erodes
The Delaware River Basin Commission had issued a study recommending a looping sewage collection system covering multiple counties that would bring human waste to a treatment plant just south of the lake.
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller rejected calls to implement expensive measures to prevent farm manure runoff into the northern Delaware and its tributaries, citing other priorities.
New Jersey Gov. William Cahill demanded more federal help in paying the costs of massive tourism expected from the national recreation area, including needed road improvements. Some new studies concluded that water piped to northeast New Jersey from the Tocks dam would be more expensive than water that state could get elsewhere.
Polls and local advisory voter referendums showed that public opinion was now strongly against the dam. Save the Delaware Coalition backed a proposal to scrap the dam and turn the entire 70,000-acre site — not just the acreage surrounding the Tocks lake — into a national recreation area.
A National Park Service confidential study, leaked to the press, said a park without a reservoir was viable and would create new recreational opportunities.
While the larger drama played out, Nancy and Joe Shukaitis lost their land — but not their home — to the government. They won an agreement allowing them to buy and move a bi-level home slated for Tocks demolition to a lot they bought elsewhere in Smithfield Township. A log cabin they had lived in, but now within federal boundaries, also was moved to their new home site.
The last of illegal "squatters" who occupied abandoned homes in the Tocks boundaries for up to four years, in defiance of federal authorities, were removed by U.S. Marshals in 1974.
A new, government-commissioned Tocks dam environmental impact report was completed by a private firm in early 1975. The project's fate came down to a summer 1975 vote of the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware. The federal representative said he would abstain.
Stopped the dam
Shukaitis was there as the governors met behind closed doors. So was Maurice Goddard, Pennsylvania's point man on water and environmental policies for five governors going back to 1955.
Shukaitis and Goddard were rivals.
He always singled out Shukaitis as an impediment to progress, whenever their paths crossed.
"I'm sorry he didn't see anything we said as worth considering," Shukaitis said.
The governors emerged and announced the dam had been voted down, 3-1. Only Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp supported it. Without the governors' support, Army Corps officials said they wouldn't resurrect the idea.
The Delaware River section through the Tocks area was given special federal protection in 1978. The dam project was officially deauthorized in the 1990s.
Goddard held Shukaitis personally responsible for the dam's defeat.
"He would always single my name out, and he wasn't nasty, but he was always mad and felt I stopped the dam," she said.
Information from: Pocono Record, http://www.poconorecord.com/