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The Wetlands Institute Then and Now by Dr. Lenore Tedesco

Originally Published in Cape May Magazine August 2014

Reprinted with permission from Cape May Magazine, August 2014.


The Wetlands Institute Then and Now

This year marks the Centennial of Stone Harbor, providing a fitting backdrop to reflect on the historical founding of the Wetlands Institute, the people who have guided its growth and development, the impact it’s made, and the path it’s now on. By Lenore P. Tedesco for The Wetlands Institute

88 Cape May Magazine

August 2014


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n 1969, Herbert Mills (1910-1972), then Executive Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), founded The South Jersey Wetlands Institute to draw attention to the dramatic losses of wetlands and the threats that their loss posed to society. He devoted much of his life to conservation and embarked on a mission to create a wetland and coastal research station in southern New Jersey to study wetlands and create an ethic of stewardship. Under his direction, the WWF purchased 6,000 acres of wetlands and changed the history of the area forever. He then fulfilled his lifelong vision of creating a worldclass research, education and conservation center. His dream was to help people understand the importance that wetlands have for their health and well-being, and he sought to inspire everyone to want to conserve and sustain them forever. This goal still underpins the mission of The Wetlands Institute and continues to guide research, conservation and education programs. Mills loved birds and nature all his life. He spent much of his life as an executive in the glass and canning industries of South Jersey. During that time, he further developed his abiding interest in conservation, and in 1960, he left the business world to devote his energy to conservation. A member of National Audubon Society’s Board of Directors since 1957, Mills served as its chairman from 1962 to 1964, and then vice-president until 1966. From 1965 to 1969, he served as Executive Director of World Wildlife Fund-US. He also served on the Executive Committee of World Wildlife Fund International and boards of numerous conservation organizations. In 1968, he spearheaded a fundraising campaign that made possible the acquisition of 6,000 acres of salt marsh extending from the barrier island to the mainland from Sea Isle to Grassy Sound. He then launched a second campaign for construction of a building which now serves as headquarters of The Wetlands Institute. The South Jersey Wetlands Institute was incorporated in 1969. In 1970, the WWF deeded a tract of 34 acres, including an area that was already filled where the Institute building now sits and the road to Scotch Bonnet Creek that is now the Salt Marsh Trail. In 1971, the State of New Jersey purchased the remaining wetland acreage as part of the Green Acres Program, and it is managed as part of the coastal wetland preserve. Herb Mills was ahead of his time. Forty-five years ago, he pointed out the importance of maintaining natural systems to help coastal communities protect themselves

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against nature’s onslaughts, long before their value was understood. In a December 1968 speech to the WWF, in the aftermath of a colossal coastal storm, Mills recognized the importance that wetlands had for coastal resilience: “The alarming losses to our fishing economy, the declining catches of menhaden [bunker] and other commercial and sport fish, and the pollution and silting caused by dredging, all point to the need for preserving these meadowlands and watercourses. [A] recent storm clearly demonstrated the importance of these marshlands. With hundreds of billions of gallons of ocean water pounding our coast and surging through our inlets to be received by these vast natural reservoirs, the pressure was relieved along the beachfront and multi-million dollar damage averted.” Stone Harbor, Avalon, and many of the coastal communities in Cape May County and throughout New Jersey were reminded of the value of wetlands in mitigating storm surges and flooding during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Mills raised the funds for the design and construction of the main Institute building. The building was designed by Malcolm B. Wells, a world-renowned ecological architect, well before this was in vogue or popular. Designed with the flavor of an old U.S. Coast Guard Station, the building’s exterior and roof are Atlantic

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White Cedar and the iconic tower provides unparalleled views of the marsh, a welcoming sight to vacationers and travelers headed to Stone Harbor. Mills met and worked with leaders throughout the conservation field and brought them to South Jersey. The Institute building was officially dedicated on September 16, 1972. Mills’ friend and the president of World Wildlife Fund International, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands, was the keynote speaker. The first Institute Board of Directors was a prominent group of renowned scientists, environmentalists and educators. Among them were Dr. Roger Tory Peterson (noted ornithologist and author), Dr. Lionel Walford (Founder of American Littoral Society), Dr. H. Lewis Batts (environmentalist and ornithologist), and Dr. Olin Sewell Pettingill (Director of Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Early board members also included Joseph Jacobs, noted for his work on osprey recovery. Attendees at the dedication of the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary included Charles Lindberg, Roger Tory Peterson, Arthur Godfrey, and numerous National Audubon Society representatives because of Mills’ influence. Herb Mills died suddenly at the age of 62 on October 21, 1972, barely a month after the Institute’s dedication ceremony. Marion Glaspey succeeded Herb Mills as Chairman of the Board and guided the Institute


for several difficult years as it struggled to become a self-sustaining, independent identity, and garner and maintain the financial support that is vital to any nonprofit organization. In addition to being totally dedicated to the Institute, Glaspey was a talented artist and photographer, teaching classes in both subjects, and she was a passionate gardener. She remained on the Board of Trustees until her death in 2000. The Institute’s first full-time Executive Director, Ed McGuire, an engineer, served from 1984 to 1985. Dr. William Reynolds was hired in 1985 and served until 1987. Cindy O’Connor guided the Institute from 1987 until 2011. In October, 2011 Dr. Lenore Tedesco became the fourth Executive Director of the Institute. In its earliest years, the Institute’s research and education

Above: The walkway around the Wetlands Institute offers views of the wetlands that many don’t get a chance to see. Founder of the Wetlands Institute, Herbert Mills with His Royal Highness Prince Bernhardt at the dedication of the Institute building. Herbert Mills addresses the crowd at the dedication. Opposite page: The Wetlands Institute July, 1973. All photographs courtesy of The Wetlands Institute.

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programs were managed by Lehigh University. Lehigh University used The Wetlands Institute as a biological field station until 1986, when the Institute’s education programs expanded dramatically, making it difficult to continue to manage. Throughout its history, the Institute has completed scores of scientific research projects. The late Albert E. Woods compiled the research conducted at the Institute, and the abstracts and reports of the research fill 11 volumes spanning 1974 through 2000. Important research on fish, shellfish, algae, plankton, marsh grasses, dredging, diamondback terrapins, marine mammals, birds, sea level, barrier beaches and geology are just some of the topics. Today, the threats to wetlands have never been greater and The Wetlands Institute continues to take a leadership role in addressing critical wetland conservation issues. Tragically, many people still view marshes as wastelands. Nationally, more than 50% of wetlands have been lost. In New Jersey, more than 40% are gone. Historically, the threat has come from development. Wetlands are being impacted by devastating natural and manmade forces. Those threats remain, but wetlands now face even greater threats. Rising sea level and increased intensity and frequency of coastal storms is causing erosion and drowning of wetlands. Hurricane Sandy reminded us of the importance wetlands have for coastal protection, but the wetlands suffered tremendous loses. Marsh nesting

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birds, already pushed into marginal nesting areas because of habitat destruction, are increasingly losing nests and eggs to flooding tides. Diamondback terrapins, already driven to nesting on roadsides in search of high ground, face additional threats as more ground is flooded. Finally, the marsh itself is becoming flooded more and more frequently, changing the very structure of the marsh and impacting its effectiveness for coastal resiliency and shoreline protection. The Wetlands Institute has put forth a bold plan to address threats to wetlands, coastal ecosystems and the animals that rely on them. To address these critical issues, the Institute has restructured the research and conservation department, recruited several key scientists, and initiated several new conservation programs. A new research station is poised to underpin research ventures to enable staff to understand impacts of rising sea level on local coastal resiliency. Situated in an area of global significance for migratory birds and horseshoe crabs, and with a natural laboratory spanning several thousand acres of unbroken wetlands, The Wetlands Institute is again poised to be a problemsolver and educator of complex issues that have both direct and indirect influence on coastal communities and economies in New Jersey and beyond. With renewed energy, focus, leadership, and passion, The Wetlands Institute has been re-purposed and is moving research, education, and conservation programs to new heights. ďƒ˝


The Wetlands Institute - Then and Now  

The Wetlands Institute, Then and Now by Dr. Lenore Tedesco Originally Published in Cape May Magazine August 2014. Reprinted with permission...

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