It’s a Good Start: The Wetlands Institute Marks 50 Years of Research, Conservation & Education
By Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director of The Wetlands Institute
Students seining in the creek (mid-1970s)
With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Wetlands Institute, I have taken time to reflect upon the value of this organization to the Seven Mile community and beyond. Value is an interesting concept because there are many ways to value things, and when it comes to valuing the natural world, even more ways become relevant.
By now, I hope this community knows of the great vision of the founder of The Wetlands Institute, and that through Herbert Mills’ perseverance, leadership and skill, he was able to create an ethic of conservation in the state of New Jersey and beyond. He raised private funds and purchased more than 10 square miles of marsh extending from Sea Isle to the south of Wildwood. Essentially the entire marsh scenery enjoyed when you drive on the causeways to Seven Mile Beach, or from any bayside vista, was preserved by actions of The Wetlands Institute. Early research established the immense biological value of these environments and provided some of the information that was important to the passage of many of the wetland and tideland protections that are now in place, forever protecting these critical resources. Work done here helped set the standards for the best way to build consensus, develop public-private partnerships, and showcase the rewards of conservation.
Funds for the land acquisition and construction of our facility on Stone Harbor Boulevard came from some corporations, a few foundations, but overwhelmingly from private donors – individuals who placed value in the natural world. Like our founder, they might have been alarmed at the rapid loss of vast tracts of marshes to development. Perhaps they already understood the role that these marshes play in protecting our communities during storm events. Maybe they loved to fish and crab in the back bays and noticed the dramatic changes that were rapidly occurring. Perhaps they achieved a level of calm and peace from looking out over these majestic marshes, and took comfort in knowing they could have a role in ensuring they would always be here. Regardless of why so many stepped forward to support the founders of The Wetlands Institute, their actions were no doubt underpinned by the value they saw in the marshes themselves.
Students bird-watching with Pete Dunne (early 1970s)
The planning and foundational documents of the institute tell a remarkable story of vision, perseverance, diplomacy, and also a deep understanding of the value of education. In the late 1960s, when the need for conservation of these wetlands was so keen, Mills continually spoke of the importance of engaging the community in an understanding of the value of these ecosystems. The dream of creating an education and research institute devoted to shallow ocean and estuarine studies was always a part of the South Jersey Wetlands project. In numerous speeches about the project, Mills stressed the need for lectures and workshops for the general public to meet the growing interest in our natural environment and to give people a better understanding of the importance of these ecosystems in their daily lives.
1977 Mini-Ecology class
The placement of The Wetlands Institute on the causeway into Stone Harbor reflects the importance of this component of our mission. This focus on providing opportunities for exploration and discovery to showcase the importance of these marshes and coastal ecosystems has been at the core of educational programming throughout our history. The land where The Wetlands Institute sits was already filled as a failed housing-development scheme, and our Salt Marsh Trail to Scotch Bonnet Creek was planned to be a road. The Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary was a world-famous birding destination boasting more than 100,000 visitors annually and seen as a great opportunity to link the attraction of the heronry to the curiosity about the wetlands so critical to the area’s abundant wildlife.
Exploring marsh life (1983)
Lehigh University was the manager of The Wetlands Institute from 1972 until 1986, and over that time period important research was conducted on a host of topics. Many of those studies catalogued the fisheries and bird life here. Other studies documented the currents, tides and sediments here and how they moved, the contaminants they contained, and their possible beneficial uses. During this time, dozens of young scientists were trained here, and they have gone on to illustrious careers. Their work, housed in the institute’s library, forms an important basis for the work we do today. To document change, and understand the implications of that change, requires knowledge of the past. These studies provide a wealth of information about these bays, marshes, and their wildlife that is invaluable to our work today.
Horseshoe Crab Encounters (1988 Fish Fest)
Training and mentoring of young scientists has been a longstanding and celebrated program here. Following the relationship with Lehigh University, The Wetlands Institute partnered with Stockton University on an undergraduate internship program through the Coastal Conservation Research Program. For more than 30 years, this program has welcomed undergraduates from nearly every state in the country, and more than 200 universities. Some students live in our dorms, while others have family connections to the area. All receive training in conservation biology and the conduct of scientific research, and all contribute to the scientific data sets we continue to develop. They are some of our best ambassadors, and this is one of our most impactful programs.
Stone Harbor Elementary Terrapin Release (1991)
The education programs of the early Wetlands Institute focused on making these inaccessible natural areas accessible. Through summer programs for people of all ages, back-bay boat tours, beach-exploration programs, workshops and lectures, there has always been a wealth of opportunities for people to connect to the very environments that define our community. Visiting school groups bring children here to study and explore, while our traveling outreach programs take live animals and lessons to schools that are otherwise unable to experience these wonderful places. Over the years, Wetlands Institute educators have developed lesson plans aimed at using the natural world in classrooms, trained teachers in outdoor education, and provided opportunities for them to participate in conservation programs. The Disney Conservation Fund has helped support the development of lesson plans for teachers that help us raise diamondback terrapins for release back into the wild. Working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, a similar program – Horseshoe Crabs in the Classrooms – lets teachers raise horseshoe crabs for later release, providing teachers and students opportunities to participate in hands-on conservation programs. Both of these programs require permits from the state and are heavily regulated, but they are very effective programs to teach science and conservation to tomorrow’s environmental stewards.
Marshes are enigmatic because, on the face of it, they appear to be a static carpet of green grasses. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The only constant of these marshes is change. Helping people of all ages grasp that concept will continue to be at the core of the offerings here to help people value these marshes. As we reflect on 50 years of research, conservation and education, I marvel at all of the change we have seen. But I also see that as an organization, we have been true to our mission. We have been adaptable and risen to meet the various challenges that have come our way. We have been responsive to different conservation questions and needs as they have evolved over time. We have developed new methods of pedagogy to train tomorrow’s educators and scientists. We have embraced new tools and technologies, developed others, and created opportunities for engagement.
The future is bright, and I invite you to celebrate with us. I hope you get to know us better and come see for yourself. Our programs are vibrant and engaging, and we invite you to join us.
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