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Marsh Musings – Spring 2023

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

The Wetlands Institute opened its doors more than 50 years ago, and over the past half-century, much has changed – but much has remained the same. What hasn’t changed is the reliance of all species (us included) on a healthy, thriving coastal ecosystem. What hasn’t changed is our commitment to each facet of our mission – research, conservation, and education. What hasn’t changed is the tremendous support from our community.

What has changed is our vulnerability to risk associated with rising seas, driven largely by climate change. Today, rapidly rising seas pose the most serious threats to these coastal ecosystems – and with them, our coastal communities. Letting nature run its course – the “do nothing” strategy – is no longer viable because doing nothing is causing harm. Solutions are complex and at times seem unattainable – but there is hope. As we have done since our founding, The Wetlands Institute is once again taking a leadership role in bringing innovative and novel approaches to restoring and preserving our marshes – and by extension, our coastal communities.

In 2019, together with our partners at the US Army Corps and the State of New Jersey, we launched the Seven Mile Island Innovation Lab (SMIIL) as a think-tank and experimental showcase to develop, test, AND implement on-the-ground solutions. This partnership is helping create a sea change for our tidal marshes and the critical habitats that are vanishing around them. We are pioneering new techniques for marsh restoration and habitat creation using clean dredged materials; reducing coastal flood risk; and contributing to the tool kit to preserve our marshes and our way of life. To date, SMIIL projects have effectively restored or enhanced more than 85 acres of failing marsh and resulted in a paradigm shift that has helped make New Jersey a national leader in marsh restoration and coastal resiliency.

There is hope. Our early work confirms that the resiliency of marshes in the project areas has dramatically increased, ensuring that they will be here for generations to come – but there is so much more to do. Now, as our work continues, we must turn our attention to building resiliency for The Wetlands Institute campus itself – our building, our trails, and the marshes that are our backyard. Elsewhere in this newsletter, we told you we are planning a project in the marshes here – but that is only the first step. We intend to make The Wetlands Institute a model for building resiliency while living in concert with nature, and are identifying ways we can use green infrastructure and construction methods to bring this vision to reality. By using the best available science and planning with intent, compassion, and respect for the living world around us, we will set the example for how we can prepare for the changes already upon us, continue to live in a vibrant and healthy marsh, and invite nature to be an integral part of the campus – and our lives. We will share everything we learn with government agencies and our local municipalities and communities so that they too can enhance resiliency and address vulnerabilities while still allowing space for nature.

The challenges we face are great, but I have never been one to shy away from great challenges – and you have come to expect no less. We are again MAKING NO SMALL PLANS. Stay tuned and join us to learn how you can be a part of it.

Marsh Musings – Winter 2022-2023

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

Many people ask me if things have slowed down now that the seasons have changed. The answer may surprise you. Our full-time year-round staff of 19 are always busy but our focus changes with the seasons. The research team is still in the field, but also analyzing data, preparing reports, writing grants, presenting their work to colleagues and peers, and planning for next year’s projects. The education team is delivering scout, homeschool, and outreach programs, continuing year-round animal care, attending conferences, and revising curricula, while our communications team is keeping our members informed and the news flowing. There is much to do with planning and renovations ahead.

Research team surveying marsh vegetation

During the busier programming season, our staff numbers swell to 52 when we add educators, interns, admissions staff, and seasonal scientists and conservationists to fulfill our research, conservation, and education mission and welcome visitors. We serve more than 13,000 schoolchildren and 17,000 visitors each year, and have more than 1,300 members that come from 42 states (some from as far away as California and Hawaii) and Canada. Something you may find interesting is that only about 15 percent of our members visit the Institute. Instead, they use membership as their way to support the crucial work that we do to preserve and protect our coastal resources and teach people of all ages of the importance of these ecosystems for our well-being. They are people, like you, that know our work is accomplished because of the broad support that we receive from our members and supporters. They recognize that we keep admission and program fees artificially low so that we can make sure our programs are accessible to all. They understand that our contract and grant work is competitively won and earned anew each year, without any guarantees. We are also able to accomplish so much because some of you underwrite programs with multi-year commitments, which is critical to helping maintain program effectiveness.

Totally Turtle Tuesday at the Institute

As we look ahead to year-end, we rely on our members and supporters to once again show their commitment to ensuring that our important work can continue. We are always interested in expanding our circle of support, and one of the best ways we do this is with your help. If you are interested in supporting a specific program, there are many needs. If you would like to introduce a friend, corporation, or foundation to our work, I would welcome the opportunity to share our story. Our story is enriched by all of you and your commitment to helping us serve our mission. As year-end approaches, now is a great time to lend a hand. Thank you for all you do, this year and always.

Marsh Musings – Autumn 2022

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

Once again, I marvel at the inescapable feeling that time has a way of accelerating when it comes to summer at the shore. This year, like so many others, summer seems to have come and gone far too quickly. Time and the rate of change are curious things because we each bring a different perspective to our perception of it.

Many of you know that I am a geologist so my perception of time normally takes an incredibly long view and I see landscapes through a lens of eons and millennia and beyond. I often write about my observations of the changes that we are seeing and documenting in our local landscape. It seems like these changes are accelerating as well. Change is here and happening fast.

Sea level rise is a major concern for the entire Jersey Shore and our observations of the changes to the marshes here show a dramatically increased frequency of their flooding, changing their structure and the protections that they afford our coastal communities.

As the chief steward of The Wetlands Institute, time is now of the essence and it is time to focus our attention to enhancing the resiliency of the Institute. In July, The Wetlands Institute finalized the purchase of a property along Route 9 in Middle Township. The purchase of a site on the mainland is our first step in better preparing the physical infrastructure of The Wetlands Institute for the future. This new site – to be known as The Wetlands Institute Mainland Campus – strengthens the Institute’s position from the perspective of resiliency and is also an important step to accommodate our continued growth and development.

The 1.2-acre property includes a four-bedroom house, oversized garage, storage shed, lit parking, and a fully fenced yard, and will provide a multitude of benefits to the Institute. We plan to renovate the property for mixed uses including office space and seasonal housing for our summer interns. It will also provide much-needed storage and maintenance areas and secure boat and fleet parking. We have plans to move some of our computing facilities and records to the mainland site as well. We have just begun planning for the renovations and will work closely with Middle Township on all aspects of the project.

We also have plans to enhance resiliency for the main wetland campus that has been a fixture of Middle Township and Seven Mile Island for generations. Our sense of place is strong and our wetland campus will always be important to our mission. We are reimagining The Wetlands Institute campus and are exploring innovative projects to restore our marshes and protect the Institute from the increasing threats of rising seas and enhanced storms. It is our intent to make The Wetlands Institute a model for how we can build resiliency and continue to live in a vibrant and healthy marsh while inviting nature to be an integral part of the campus.

Stay tuned for more about our plans for the future and how you can contribute your ideas to the process.

“Sunny Day” flooding at The Wetlands Institute marsh

Marsh Musings – Summer 2022

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

It’s in our nature to steward our fragile coastal ecosystems. It’s in our nature to conduct applied research to understand how these marshes are changing and how the wildlife that depend on them are impacted, and to use that research to inform conservation. It’s in our nature to educate people of all ages of their importance, and to connect them to the splendor of these ecosystems for everyone’s well-being. It’s in our nature to preserve, protect, and restore – and to inspire others to do the same.

More than 50 years ago, the World Wildlife Fund made south Jersey marshes a bastion of the fledgling conservation movement and protected them for the future. They founded The Wetlands Institute and built a research and education center here, so that people could experience the often inaccessible marsh. At the time, threats to wetlands came largely from coastal development. Losses were dramatic, and setting aside land through conservation was a highly effective strategy. Today, the most serious threats come from rapidly rising seas. They are more complex and affect marshes and coastal ecosystems regardless of their protection status. The effects ripple throughout the interconnected web, involving the systems themselves and all of the plants and animals within them. Solutions are much harder to come by. Letting nature run its course – the do nothing strategy – is no longer viable because doing nothing is causing harm.

Coastal flooding, marsh loss, and beach erosion are now everyday terms in our vernacular. The most widely employed response has been to harden our coastal defenses. Proposed solutions include building seawalls, raising bulkheads, and planning storm surge barriers that will close off the connections at major tidal inlets. Each of these dramatically interrupt the ebb and flow of the natural systems, and disconnect us from the nature that we so love and depend on for both physical and mental health.

The unintended consequences to the ecosystems are significant. A small change in the tidal flow through an inlet caused by a surge barrier can dramatically and negatively impact a marsh’s ability to build vertically to maintain its health. Seawalls and bulkheads block nesting areas for many species, notably diamondback terrapins. Juvenile fish, crabs, and birds rely on shallow mudflats and marshy edges that are absent along bulkheads.

It is against this backdrop that the Seven Mile Island Innovation Lab (SMIIL) was created. This partnership with the US Army Corp of Engineers and State of New Jersey is working to find ways to engineer with nature to reduce coastal flood risk, enhance marsh resilience, and restore vanishing habitats. We are implementing projects using clean dredged sediment; these have been working and have the potential to provide effective alternatives to coastal hardening. A next key focus of SMIIL will be to turn our attention to building resilience for TWI in innovative ways that preserve our connection to nature.

The Wetlands Institute opened its doors over 50 years ago. Over the past half-century, much has changed. What has remained consistent is our commitment to each facet of our mission – research, conservation, and education – and to maintaining the links between them. We are a distinctive organization because of this interconnectedness. It’s in our nature to connect people to the world around them, and this will always be at the heart of who we are.

Marsh Musings – Winter 2021-2022

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

Fall is in full swing as I write this and the marshes are a vibrant golden color this morning. Later stage migrants are moving through and the wintering waterfowl and raptors are returning to the marsh. It’s a beautiful time, and while the shortening days are harbingers of the winter to come, it’s also a time to take stock of the past year and look forward to the quieter days ahead and think about our winter work. One of the things I love about my work here is that the rhythm of the seasons also dictates the schedule of our projects and programs. There really is not a slow time here anymore, but there is a quieter period that brings opportunities for planning and assessment.

As I look back at 2021 so far, it has been a good year for the Institute. We have gradually seen the resumption of more normal operations. Visitors returned in healthy numbers all summer to reconnect with nature. Our Summer Nature Programs for kids were incredibly busy, with record enrollments. It was wonderful to have the undergraduate interns here again this summer. Summer Celebration was a smashing success. This fall, school and outreach programs are gradually picking up again, though the uncertainty of the unsettled times for schools will continue for a while. Many of our University partnerships for research and course-work have resumed, and we are excited to welcome visiting scientists and students back to the Institute this fall. With fieldwork winding down for the season, our scientists are busy analyzing data and writing reports.

For the next several months, the board and leadership team will be undertaking quite a bit of planning. Several long-serving board members will be finishing their service in January, creating opportunities for more junior board members to move into leadership roles, and for new board members to join in guiding our journey. At the same time, we will be planning for how best to deliver our mission as the scale and complexity of Institute operations continues to increase. There is much to do and it’s refreshing to finally be able to move past the all-consuming work of managing operations around COVID and getting back to the business of serving our mission.

Overall, this has been a remarkable year. Thanks to the steadfast commitment of the trustees, staff, and all of you – our supporters – The Wetlands Institute is strong. I am honored to lead this organization as we move boldly forward, and will be reporting on our plans in the next several issues.

Marsh Musings – Autumn 2021

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

I write to you today on the 10th Anniversary of my tenure as the Executive Director of The Wetlands Institute (TWI). It’s true that the past decade has seen unprecedented growth, and my mantra of making no small plans has been a guiding principal of the strategy that I have employed. The Institute has undergone a remarkable transformation, and research and conservation have been restored to the foundational status that this Institute deserves. Through it all, education programs and visitor services have blossomed, matured, and expanded. We’ve seen a lot of rocky roads including Sandy, an economic downturn, and now COVID, and I am proud to say we are financially strong and as the urgency of our work becomes more apparent every day, we are poised to truly make a difference as we serve our mission.

I am proud of The Wetlands Institute, our history, and our accomplishments. I also understand that perhaps my greatest achievement lies not in what I have done, but in bringing together a remarkable team to lead the way in developing excellence in each area of our work. My first move was to strengthen the financial side of the equation by completely revising Bonnie Girard’s role. Bonnie keeps the financial and administrative wheels turning. Her role has evolved constantly as grant accounting, human resources, and legal compliance efforts grow ever more complex. Bonnie has been the rock that helped build the foundation crucial to all else.

The second key decision was bringing Brooke Knapick to New Jersey. I recruited Brooke to work with me in Indiana, and as soon as I got to TWI, I knew that our education programs needed her. Brooke has an incredible ability to bring science and education together in dynamic and inspirational ways. She is driven every day to provide outstanding, impactful, and meaningful educational programming to TWI. She has transformed our programs across the board, embracing and enhancing a competitive advantage of TWI that is born from housing research, conservation, and education under one roof. Under her leadership, education and visitor programs are flourishing.

By the middle of my second year at TWI, I was able to put the last piece of the leadership puzzle in place. Dr. Lisa Ferguson joined the leadership team and undertook the daunting task of building a culture of research and conservation excellence that had faded in the intervening years following the separation from Lehigh University. Lisa possesses a rare gift. She is a talented scientist that believes in the importance of community, relishes mentoring young scientists, and values the role of applied research. She forged a path that honored the history of terrapin conservation championed by Dr. Roger Wood, added innovative new ways to understand terrapin populations, and has embedded emerging research into conservation best practices. She has done this while building a remarkable horseshoe crab conservation program, and created a coastal bird research and conservation program.

So upon reflection, my greatest accomplishments lie less in what I may have been able to achieve, but in the strength of the leadership team that has been so amazing in their excellence, vision, and commitment to ensuring that their Wetlands Institute is something we can all be proud of.

Marsh Musings – Summer 2021

A Time for Renewal
by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

With summer comes renewal and hopefully the end of a long and difficult time for us all. These past several weeks have brought the first glimpses of a return to more normal times. Visitors are back at the Institute enjoying the wonders of the spring migration and myriad of remarkable creatures that spend the summers here – or are moving through to their final summering grounds. We’re gradually hearing the laughter of children again as educational programs begin to return. Every day we welcome seasonal staff, dramatically expanding our staffing numbers to meet summer program needs. With all the hustle and bustle here, the silence of last year is gradually fading into a distant memory.

There is so much that we missed over these past 15 months, but also so much that we have learned and discovered. Our staff have been simply amazing. They have navigated massive operational disruptions, retooled processes and procedures to continue the life-saving research and conservation work we do, and re-envisioned educational programs to help people connect – or reconnect – to nature.

It’s been a massive undertaking that stressed us to our core. It’s often said that you don’t learn your true strengths until you are tested. All of us have been tested. And we learned that we are strong, innovative, and valued. Perhaps equally important, we were reminded that our friends and supporters will stand by us. Stand by us you did – and more: your support and encouragement helped carry us through.

We’re looking forward with excitement. Though last summer marked the first time in more than 30 years that we were without our interns, we have welcomed them back and are thrilled to have a wonderful cohort of undergraduates working with us again this summer. Our seasonal scientists are here gaining valuable early career experience and supporting critical field research operations. Summer Nature Program registrations are robust. We are planning for in-person celebrations throughout the summer, and hope to see you at the Institute soon. Our future looks bright and your steady support was an important part of making that happen.

I’ve missed seeing you and sharing the excitement, but there is more ahead. As we emerge from the challenges of the pandemic, we are turning our attention to defining strategies for building additional resilience into the organization. You will be hearing about these efforts in the coming months.

Be sure to stay connected to all that is happening at The Wetlands Institute. I look forward to seeing you all. My door is open and most days you can find me here. Drop by, share your thoughts, and know I am always listening.

Marsh Musings – Spring 2021

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

With winter drawing to a close and the promise of spring on the horizon, 2021 is rapidly coming into focus. As an organization, we are faced again with a complex landscape of external factors that will shape day-to-day operations and our future planning. I have come to think of 2020 as a reactive year. It was the year that happened to us. In hindsight, we spent the year largely playing defense. We responded as well as we could, on as many levels as possible, and almost always at the same time. Unprecedented is a word I will retire from my vocabulary, but its place in 2020 is undeniable. It really means that our tool kits were not well suited for the situations that we all faced.

In spite of 2020’s many challenges, we navigated those choppy waters of constant uncertainty and we did it with poise and strength, clear vision and leadership. Inspired by the ways people of all ages reconnected with the natural world, our team worked harder and with greater purpose in our efforts promoting appreciation, understanding and stewardship of our wetlands and coastal ecosystem. We stayed nimble, listened to trusted friends, remained true to our mission, protected our staff, and focused on core programs. And we are OK. The support from you, our extended family, made all the difference and helped carry us through. You made a difference.

Now it’s time to move beyond simply operating in a transformed organizational landscape and move forward to recovery – and the team at The Wetlands Institute has again rolled up our sleeves and are taking on 2021 with purpose and hope. Our educators have reimagined science discovery to provide engaging experiences for kids in a virtual weary world. We’ve modified our visitor programs to give you an opportunity to stay connected or reconnect to nature’s soothing yet vibrant energy. Research and conservation programs have been revamped to allow staff to continue their life-saving work, protect the most sensitive species of this coastal ecosystem, and forge ahead to make critical contributions in the fight to preserve and protect our marshes for future generations.

I have no doubt that 2021 will continue to be a challenge and we will face many difficult decisions. I know program revenues will feel an impact, but I also know that we have the ability, the drive, and the resilience to excel. With you all at our side and on our team, we continue to Make No Small Plans, and it will once again make all the difference. In 2020, we reacted. In 2021, we will again move forward with vision, conviction, and hope. As always, I welcome your thoughts, your wisdom, and your ideas.

Marsh Musings – Winter 2020-2021

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

As I think about the final quarter of 2020, I do so with weary eyes. This has been a year of challenges for The Wetlands Institute. I know that most, if not all of you can relate because of the challenges faced by you and your families. The Wetlands Institute faced the stress of closure and remote work that has been gradually eroding the fabric of our staff family. With great effort, we have managed to adapt to the added burden of reduced staffing and changing research protocols to meet our conservation goals. The need to contend with widespread cancellations in our visitor programs, special events, and education programs has been our most daunting challenge. We are not alone. The impact of COVID-related closures on environmental education and nature centers nationally has been acute.

I am proud to say that through the process of adaptation this year, I learned the strength of resiliency. We worked to transform our Summer Celebration, creating an entirely online event. We found in our new approach that we were able to tell our story to many more of you, and to build awareness of the Institute and its programs to a broader constituency.

Our educators continue to work to reimagine essentially all that they do. They were able to bring the summer camp essence of our Summer Nature Program to life by creating exciting activities of exploration and discovery for families at home. They built on this approach to launch an expanded homeschooling program, which extends beyond the traditional homeschooling family to include enhancements to help all families who suddenly find their children struggling with virtual schooling. There is so much more we will have to do.

We recognize that the strength of The Wetlands Institute is in the connections that we help people make with the natural world. Providing engaging exploration of the natural world is at the heart of what we do. Connecting people with nature is a core competency of the Institute. We will remain true to our core, and develop new ways that allow us to deliver even better than before.

As this pandemic continues to impact our lives, we are all forced to ask questions that go well beyond the timeline for the return to normal. Instead, we are considering the ways that things will permanently change. We continue to face a long and difficult road, but we are a strong organization. Our commitment to our staff and core programs will not falter. Our mission and vision are sound and clear, and we will continue to focus our efforts to realize them.

As we work to close out 2020, I look to all of you – our friends and supporters – to consider how you can help. Your support has made us strong. The increase we have seen in your generosity this year has made all the difference. It has given us the power to meet these challenges head on. Most importantly, it has given us hope. Your gifts and donations send a loud and resounding message to the staff family here that what they do matters, that you believe in The Wetlands Institute, our work, and its importance. That is perhaps the biggest gift of all. Your continued support through these incredible times will remain a vital pillar of strength.

If you have ideas or ways you think you can help, or if you need to reconnect, my door remains open. Stand with us now and renew your commitment to the greatness we will continue to be.

Marsh Musings – Summer 2020

Never Waste a Good Crisis
by Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director

Boy, what to even say. As I reflect on the past few months, I can say with certainty that this has been an incredibly trying time for The Wetlands Institute. My thoughts about leadership during a crisis of this magnitude have evolved quite rapidly and I can finally say I think I have settled in a good place. I am sure that many of you have experienced some of the same feelings and even the same challenges as you navigate this crisis personally, and with your own businesses.

As this pandemic was ramping up in the US, I was in the Galápagos and Peru with friends of the Institute. We were watching the rapidly evolving situation from a remarkable place where the theory of evolution was “discovered”. Perhaps this was fortuitous as evolution and the “survival of the fittest” were at the forefront of my thoughts as I returned home to face the incredible challenges that lay ahead. The survivors are those that are most able to adapt and those most able to adapt are frequently able to be even stronger under the new conditions.

I think I have heard the phrase “unchartered territory” more in the past two months than in my life leading up to this point. When you break this term down, we are really just saying we face an adaptive problem without a tool kit of existing solutions and where leadership and laser-beam focus on mission takes on incredible new importance.

My first definitive step was to protect our long-term mission and support our team. They are the heart of the Institute. I needed to keep them safe and employed. We did that by immediately providing remote access to all full-time employees and moving to work-from-home schedules. We quickly defined essential mission components and concrete steps to deliver them. Animal care came to the top of the list and has been well managed. Maintaining our core research and conservation programs followed and I am pleased to say we have been able to deliver on this through a lot of planning and modifications to how we conduct projects.

Our education programs and visitor services have been extremely hard hit but we are working to adapt. Providing engaging exploration of the natural world is at the heart of what we do. Connecting people with nature is a core competency of the Institute. We will retain this core and our goal is to develop new ways that allow us to deliver even better than before.

We face a long and difficult road but we are a strong organization. We have turned a corner and are focused on building to be better than before. I draw my strength from your support. If you have ideas or ways you think you can help, my door remains open. Your support through these incredible times will be in important pillar of our strength. Stick with us and renew your commitment to the greatness we will continue to deliver.