In a society suddenly infiltrated by spark words like “sustainability,” “organic,” and “locally grown,” why is it so easy for us to put on blinders to our own ecosystem and environment? Seemingly, we’re all so self-aware and are single-handedly saving the world by purchasing free-range eggs at the local Shoprite. Meanwhile, we are living in this incredibly unique area filled with a plethora of unusual wildlife, habitats and greenery. Ocean County is a rare gem of world-wide environmental intrigue, with cedar swamps, salt marshes, natural estuaries, pygmy forests and the protected pine barrens; all of which face very real threats.
I grew up in the Pine Barrens, right near Double Trouble State Park where my mother would drag me along each weekend on bird-watching expeditions; set on saving the endangered blue birds. As a child, I would play in the forest, dig out graves for dead frogs and mice and regularly attended the Ocean Nature Conservation Society meetings with my Mom at the tender age of 9, serving as their honorary Vice President. You might think that this background would cause me to become an environmentalist myself, but no— I rebelled. I moved away for college, and then became a music journalist/publicist in New York City where I became terribly ignorant of a world outside my own urban landscape. Having moved back to my hometown last year and in speaking with the esteemed environmentalist, Terry O’Leary, I’m suddenly present to where I live and all that our county has to offer.
Terry O’Leary is a master naturalist and conservationist who has devoted his life to protecting the unique environments and ecosystems within the Pinelands. O’Leary grew up in Port Monmouth, NJ, where he spent his time clamming and trapping muskrats with his brother. It was this upbringing that inspired his pursuit of higher education in Environmental Science, in which he holds a master’s degree from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). Following his graduation, Pinelands Regional High School recruited him to teach environmental science and ecology when it first opened. This was a very special opportunity, as it was the first High School in New Jersey to offer environmental science as a subject.
After leaving Pinelands Regional High School Terry and his wife Kathy started their own business, Cedar Hollow Landscape Design and Environmental Consulting. Through this company, they were able to work on protecting endangered species, wetlands mitigation and landscape design. It was during this time that they teamed up with the Ocean County Saw District in Forked River to build rain gardens for those wanting to get a permit to build in the pinelands.
O’Leary comments, “Every building nowadays can’t have runoff that goes onto the road. They must have either a retention basin or a detention basin. What better way to utilize the water than have it run into the soil and sustain itself by planting a garden there? So, we brought this to the local schools and worked with the kids there to imagine and build all of these gardens. This was a big successes because the kids bought into the idea so much and there was no vandalism.”
O’Leary helped to establish the Lighthouse Natural Resource Education Foundation in Waretown, which hosts interactive programs through “Experience Barnegat Bay,” (EBB) which is based on involvement in conservation of natural resources. The lighthouse center is also used by schools, universities, environmental groups and scouting groups for environmental studies and programs. However, it can also be rented by most anyone in need of a large lodge or dormitory wings in a camp like-environment. Additionally, he helped to create the Barnegat Bay Decoy and Baymen’s Museum (now the Tuckerton Seaport) and was the educational coordinator for the Forest Resource Education Center in Jackson for 12 years.
When I asked Terry about what keeps him continually coming back to Ocean County, he replied, “It’s quite an interesting place, we have beautiful streams and forests, and we have lots of threats. Barnegat Bay is a natural estuary, which is a big deal. There are only 21 natural estuaries in the entire country. It’s in peril because there’s too much runoff from lawn fertilizer, there’s garbage and goose feces everywhere. We have beautiful cedar swamps and all kinds of incredible rare animals and plants like: Pine Barrens Tree Frogs, Pine Snakes, Corn Snakes, Timber Rattlesnakes. And, there are all kinds of rare plants. We need to protect and help to expand these animal’s habitats and spread awareness about them.”
O’Leary has been recognized for some of the outstanding work he has done and has received the Guardians of the Bay Lifetime Achievement Award from the Barnegat Bay National Estuary program in 2007 and was also inducted into the Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s Pine Barrens Educator’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
O’Leary’s biggest goal now is to “pass it on. I had mentors in my life, like Elizabeth Morgan, who was a mentor to your Mom (Nancy Eriksen) and to me. Dr. Vivian, he was my professor and he was working until he was 88 and he died at 93. He was a role model who pushed me very hard and I learned so much from him. So now I’m trying to pass it on to the next generation, which I think Master Naturalist is a perfect avenue for (a program at Ocean County College’s Continuing and Professional Education Department). I have 9 people who finished the program this past year and they’re volunteering all over the place; one guy is working with eels, another guy is a master birder; there are people who are monitoring the peregrine falcons at Island Beach State Park. They all find a way to put in their 40 hours and then some!”
If you’re looking to get involved and volunteer, the Lighthouse Natural Resource Education Foundation will be hosting two information sessions on Wednesday November 2nd at 2 and 5PM. There will be refreshments available at both sessions, email email@example.com for more information.