Memorial Day 2019
Turning 50! Why the Wetlands Institute Was Vital Then, and Why It’s Vital Now
By Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director of The Wetlands Institute
Throughout the year, The Wetlands Institute is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding. Many of you know us well. Others have driven by for years but really don’t know who we are or what we do. And even more are unfamiliar with our history. As we celebrate 50 years since the founding of The Wetlands Institute, it is an opportune time to explore our roots and tell a most remarkable story that has had a profound impact on our community and coastal communities statewide and beyond. I will share some of the highlights throughout the summer here, as well as in presentations and exhibits at the Institute, and in presentations throughout the community.
The planning and foundational documents of the Institute tell an incredible story of vision, perseverance, diplomacy, and a deep understanding of the value of coastal marshes. They speak of the importance of preservation, but also of the critical need for research and engaging the community in an understanding of the value of these ecosystems.
The Institute was founded through the efforts of Herbert Mills, then the executive director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Mills and his colleagues noted the dramatic decline in commercial and recreational fisheries, the increase in water pollution, and the loss of important services that wetlands provide to communities resulting from the large-scale loss of wetlands to development and filling. He introduced the New Jersey Wetlands Acquisition Project to the WWF executive committee in the fall of 1967 after years of research identifying the importance of marshes, and especially these marshes.
Joe Jacobs on an osprey nest at Cedar Island in early 1960s.
Mills wrote frequently of the values of coastal marshes for the protection of communities in coastal storms, and in a 1968 article in the Cape May County Herald, he documented the role of our wetlands for averting flooding damage to the community from a recent storm. Mills was a visionary who was way ahead of his time because he was talking about coastal resiliency, a term now in widespread use following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy but largely not a recognized benefit before Sandy.
Mills and the WWF made a stand for the protection of coastal wetlands and chose South Jersey as the focal point because of Mills’ love for the area and the imminent development threat these marshes faced. By 1967, Mills had amassed significant evidence that proved these marshes were among the most biologically diverse on the entire East Coast. An early letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports his assessment and confirms that these marshes are “of national park quality” and in desperate need of protection.
Joseph Jacobs, an Avalon summer resident and licensed bird bander, had been banding osprey here for decades by the late-1960s. Jacobs’ work had established that the osprey nesting on Cedar Island, in the marshes behind Avalon, comprised the last significant nesting population of osprey in the entire state.
Herbert Mills and Mark Pokrast studying osprey in Scotch Bonnet Creek, 1968.
Among the archived documents at The Wetlands Institute is a heavily worn coastal chart titled simply “Mills Master Plan” in red pencil. On this chart are notations of various parcels, their acreage and their owners, along with color coding for prioritization of acquisition. In December 1967, Mills met with Commissioner Robert Roe of the New Jersey Department of Conservation and Economic Development, the precursor to the Department of Environmental Protection. He presented his plan for the WWF to purchase thousands of acres of marshland with the intent of preserving them in perpetuity, and holding them until the state was in a position to take them. Roe clearly agreed to the plan because at the time of the Institute’s founding two years later, WWF had acquired more than 5,000 acres of coastal wetlands in Cape May County. The initial acquisitions covered more than 10 square miles and extended throughout the back bays from Sea Isle to Wildwood and from the barrier islands to the mainland.
The land-acquisition costs exceeded $4.9 million, when converted to 2019 values.
WWF map showing protected parcels
In addition to land acquisition for preservation, Mills and his colleagues sought to build an ethic of conservation as well. In the late-1960s, development pressure on Seven Mile Beach was extreme with the rapid loss of the high dunes area in Avalon, the loss of a portion of the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary to development, and the imminent threat of dredging and filling of vast tracts of marsh acreage in Avalon. Following the purchase of 210 acres of Cedar Island marshes by the state, WWF purchased another 953 acres of wetland there in late 1968. In July 1969, Mills arranged a tour of the recently acquired marshland and visits to the bird sanctuary and dunes by WWF officials, civic leaders, and celebrities lending their name to conservation efforts. Tour dignitaries included Arthur Godfrey, Charles Lindbergh and Dr. Roger Tory Peterson (Peterson Bird Guides). Roe, Mills, V.H. Bell (mayor of Avalon), William Lange Jr. (mayor of Stone Harbor), LeRoy May Jr. (mayor of Middle Township), Dr. Leon Schuck and the County Board of Freeholders were all in attendance. Following a helicopter tour of the marshes, the group landed in Stone Harbor to tour the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary, where a crowd of more than 200 had assembled. Dignitaries praised the civic leaders of our communities for their insight and understanding of the value of preservation beyond the value of development. Roe announced a six-month moratorium on building on state lands until studies could be made of the impacts to the state’s tidelands. The group proceeded by motorcade to Phillips’ Rock ’n Chair Inn for refreshments and a round-table discussion.
Dignitaries at Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary in July 1969. From left: Robert Roe, Herbert Mills, Charles Lindbergh, Harry Letsche,
Leroy May Jr., Leon Schuck, Arthur Godfrey, John Mladgden, William Lange Jr., Dr. Roger Tory Peterson.
The land acquisition by the WWF made national news and was headline-worthy in papers including the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle, among others. The project had support letters from Prince Philip of England and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, leaders in international conservation efforts. These lands and additional land acquisitions totaling more than 5,000 acres were transferred to the State of New Jersey for the creation of the Cape May Wetlands Wildlife Management Area later in 1969, forever preserving these wetlands.
A 35-acre parcel was transferred to the newly incorporated South Jersey Wetlands Institute and is the site of The Wetlands Institute’s research laboratories, dormitory, dock, trail, and walkway, auditorium for public programs and events, exhibit and classroom space, tower, aquarium and gift shop. In numerous speeches about the land-acquisition project, Mills stressed the need for lectures and workshops for the general public to meet the growing interest in our natural environment and give people a better understanding of the importance of these ecosystems in our daily lives.
The Wetlands Institute is a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve, protect and steward wetlands and coastal ecosystems, and fulfills its mission through its programs in research, conservation and education. Over the years, the threats to wetlands have changed, but the need to better understand them and their response to new threats has never been greater. We will continue to share the history of the Institute and I hope you will make this the year you learn more about us and come for that visit you have been thinking about for years. If you have stories you would like to share, please contact me. Save the date for our 50th Anniversary Open House, June 22 and 23.
Celebrating 50 Years of Research, Conservation and Education
Summer Nature Program
Discover the Jersey Shore in a fun and hands-on way! Engage in science experimentation and exploration, play games, go on field trips, explore the beach, get crafty, and much more! Weekly themes include: “Fins, Scales, & Tails: A Fishes Creature Feature,” “Eco-Trails and Treasures,” “Oceanopolis,” “The Great Outback Survival Games,” “Terrapins to Toads: Community Defenders,” “Making a Splash with Marine Mammals,” “Dragons, Damsels, and Butter? Oh, Fly!,” “Mainland to Marshes: Explore the Shore,” and “Rock Fossil Stone!”
Children ages 5-13
Weekly programs June 26-Aug. 21, Includes field trips and beach days. 9:30am-2pm
Children age 4
Special programs the weeks of June 26, July 8, July 22, Aug. 5 and Aug. 19. 9:30am-noon
For details and applications please visit
50th Anniversary Celebration
Saturday and Sunday June 22 and 23, 9:30-4:30pm
It’s a free celebration in honor of 50 years of excellence in research, conservation and education! We’ll be celebrating all the programs that have made us famous and brought so much joy and discovery. We have planned a little something for everyone!
• Explore the vast wetlands with guided walks, back-bay boat*, kayak* and paddleboard tours*!
• Get hands-on with touch tanks, and live animal demonstrations.
• Learn about the founding of The Wetlands Institute and its historical
significance for the region and for environmental research, conservation and education!
• Exercise your inner artist with local art and crafts demonstrations!
• Relax waterside to local music and with delicious local fare from our favorite food trucks!
More information: wetlandsinstitute.org/50th-anniversary-celebration/
*requires advanced registration and fees