Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director
In the environmental field, we often talk about land and people connections when we want to highlight the importance of stewardship, but every now and then there is a single person whose catalytic energy to protect our natural world is nearly as strong as Mother Nature herself. In New Jersey, her name is Candace McKee Ashmun or Candy to her innumerable friends, colleagues, mentees and admirers. This past Saturday, family and friends from across the country gathered for the dedication of the Candace McKee Ashmun Preserve at Forked River Mountain in the Pinelands.
Candy has spent fifty years criss-crossing this state to promote, write, guide, influence, research, advocate for and inspire sound environmental policy and land protection. Much was said of the hundreds of thousands of miles she has traveled to be present at meetings wherein state, regional and local decisions have been made about the environment. Candy, however, is not only present, she is an active force, a simultaneous student and expert on every aspect of resource and land use protection, and perhaps most importantly, a relationship builder.
Not only can most of today’s prominent leaders in New Jersey’s environmental movement trace their individual careers and victories to Candy, but most of the collegial forums of environmental leaders have been launched or strengthened by Candy. Take the monthly environmental summit that Candy organized, or the Coalition on Affordable Housing and the Environment, or the Environmental Congress run by Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC). Candy has served as a connector long before Facebook, LinkedIn, or other virtual social networking forums burst on to the scene. There is also the informal relationship building. Candy has built environmental champions and converts over countless breakfasts, lunches, and cups of coffee. She still meets at least quarterly for lunch with our female environmental leaders (I understand policy is the main course and dessert is all about recharging each others’ energies). And I have to add my deep personal gratitude for the lunches we have spent talking about the role of philanthropy in NJ’s environmental movement.
To underscore the relationship building aspect of Candy’s work, it is worth noting that those who spoke about Candy’s invaluable contributions offered their information in the form of stories. Most of the speakers are environmental icons themselves, and while we often see them in battle mode or in serious policy negotiations, on this day their faces were bright, and celebratory laughter mixed playfully with the scent of fall leaves. I’m not sure I’ve ever been at an event where the joy of a connection to someone was as evident as it was on faces and in the words of Saturday’s speakers. The collective radiant, smiling images of these leaders below might be as sacred as rare bird and plant species sightings! The order is as follows: Michele Byers, master of ceremonies and Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (Candy hired Michele for her first environmental job in NJ); Sandy Batty, Executive Director of the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions (Candy helped found this organization); John Stokes, Executive Director of the Pinelands Commission (Candy is the only active member of the founding Pinelands Commission and is now the acting President); Rick Greenberg, President of the Fund for New Jersey (Candy is a trustee); Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (the watchdog group of the Pinelands); Lorraine Sansone of the Forked River Mountain Coalition (Candy has encouraged and supported grassroots involvement in the Pines and beyond); Michael Catania, President of Conservation Resources Inc., and Scott McVay, past President of the Dodge Foundation, who offered a moving recitation about Candy’s commitment to the Pinelands.
Scott reminded us that the Pinelands is one million acres or one fifth of the land mass in New Jersey, which holds 17 trillion gallons of clean water. An excerpt from his recitation describes some of its treasures:pink lady slipper, sandwort spatterdock, swamp magnolia, pyxie moss, broom cherry, orange milkwort, the dragon mouth orchid, October blue blue gentian
Then there were the descriptions of Candy’s efforts scattered throughout the speeches:tireless, staunch, giving, committed, dogged, valiant, vigilant, warm, fair, generous, intelligent
We would not have the first list if not for Candy’s stated attributes (and that list goes on and on). Whether hiring people, starting organizations, consulting, kick-starting local actions, mentoring, or answering the call to service, Candy has shown us her love for New Jersey’s natural places and resources. Candy has inspired several generations to answer this call to service, and the Preserve will continue as a source of inspiration for generations to come.
We may not all have this reach in our work, but the challenge woven into the day was how each of us might emulate Candy’s example in advancing an environmental agenda and protecting the places we love. I know that because of Candy I will remember to tend to the people part of the equation, allies and perceived foes alike, with grace and respect. What are the places that live in your heart and who are the people connected to them?