Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel retired Saturday from leading the New Jersey chapter of the nation’s longest operating environmental organization, but he will remain involved in the state with the issues that matter most to him, he said recently.
And that has caused many environmentalists — and reporters who have relied on his pithy and often funny ways of summing up an issue — to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Some may say now I’ll be untethered and unfiltered,” Tittel said of his freedom of representing just himself, instead of the club and its thousands of members.
The Lambertville, Hunterdon County, resident has been executive director of New Jersey Sierra Club for 23 years. He doesn’t expect a new New Jersey director to be announced until the fall.
“Sierra Club has a very complicated process. It’s going to take time to replace me,” he said.
“In many ways, environmental activism in New Jersey is synonymous with Jeff’s lifelong advocacy,” said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey, who has worked with Tittel for more than two decades. “This is where Jeff is retiring from his job, but not retiring from advocacy. I fully expect he will still be heavily involved in environmental fights near and dear to him.”
Two of O’Malley’s favorite Tittel-isms?
“He likes to refer, when talking about pharmaceuticals in waterways, ‘We’re trying to prevent Viagara Falls here,’” O’Malley said. “That’s kind of high on the list.”
And when former state Department of Environmental Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell switched from opposing to supporting the state’s bear hunt, Tittel called him a “pander bear.”
“It’s a craft,” O’Malley said. “Most environmental advocacy is stuck in jargon and parochial nomenclature, and acronyms don’t speak to the public. Jeff has a unique talent breaking down what issues mean and why people should care.”
Tittel began getting more involved in New Jersey environmental issues almost 35 years ago, while living in Washington D.C., and working as a direct mail consultant, he said.
“We had a family cabin in Ringwood (Passaic County). When we stayed there, we got involved in local stuff,” Tittel said.
A highlight was organizing a group to preserve the Stirling Forest just over the border in New York — which he called the largest undeveloped tract of land in the New York metro area.
It’s now a 22,000-acre state park, and New Jersey contributed $10 million to its purchase for open space to protect an aquifer serving North Jersey.
At Sierra Club, he has been involved in a years-long effort that is finally paying off to get offshore wind facilities built, and to promote clean electric cars.
South Jersey readers will most remember him, perhaps, for his successfully fighting to close both the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township, and the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township. An opponent of all fossil fuels, he was also instrumental in stopping South Jersey Gas’s plans to build a natural gas pipeline through part of protected forest in the pinelands, so that the B.L. England plant could convert from coal and oil to natural gas.
Tittel came by his advocacy in a less common way than most Baby Boomers. Both his parents and grandparents were activists in labor, anti-war and other movements in North Jersey.
“I’m the conservative,” Tittel said. “In my family, I’m definitely a lot more conservative than my parents and grandparents.”
When he was 4, he participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s, Tittel said. “It was 1961. I understood a lot of it — that it was about in the South, not everybody could sit at that lunch counter.”
The first environmental activism he participated in was on the first Earth Day, he said, when he organized fellow seventh graders in Hillside to help clean up the Elizabeth River.
When he couldn’t get the town’s public works department to help by providing rakes and shovels to help pull trash out of the water, he went to the town’s Democratic chairperson and asked for help.
“She made the call,” Tittel said, got him what he needed and made sure the mayor and press could attend. “That was my first lesson (in how to organize an event).”
For the second Earth Day, he helped organize a skit about pollution based on the super popular TV show “Laugh-In.”
“We called it ‘Pollute Out’ instead of ‘Laugh- In,’” Tittel said. They relied on humor to get their message across.
Tittel met his wife, Barbara, a planner, at a planning board meeting in Ringwood in which the town was reexamining its master plan.
“We were the only two people in the audience,” Tittel said. He has two stepchildren and four stepgrandchildren through her, he said.
He plans to spend more time with his grandchildren, and hiking and kayaking for enjoyment.
For the last 23 years, most hikes and kayak trips have been related to the job, going out to see a problem.
A celebration of Tittel’s career will have to wait, though, because of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
“This would be an excuse to have a massive blowout party in Lambertville. The shad festival would have been last weekend. That would have been a great official sending off party,” O’Malley said. “I hope in the post-pandemic world we can have a more formal and public celebration.”
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