The nation’s most densely populated state has invested heavily in preserving forests, streams, meadows, marshes and other natural landscapes. Thanks to a constitutional amendment that provides dedicated funding for land preservation, funds to continue New Jersey’s investment will be available for years to come.

But who will care for this land in the future? A great deal of work – including habitat restoration, invasive species removal, protecting water quality and creating sustainable communities – will be done by volunteers throughout this state we’re in.

Today, many of New Jersey’s top environmental volunteers are honing their science and leadership skills through the Rutgers Environmental Stewards program.

This 11-year-old program teaches non-scientists how to understand and take action on environmental issues affecting their communities and the state at large.

“Anyone can become a Rutgers Environmental Steward,” said Michele Bakacs, program coordinator in Middlesex County. “The program introduces non-scientists to the science underlying key environmental issues in the Garden State.”

The program combines classroom training with internships to teach volunteers about topics like climate change, geology, land and water stewardship, best management practices and environmental public advocacy. Classes are taught by experts from Rutgers University and its consortium partners.

Students complete their training by serving as interns for non-profit and government environmental organizations. After 60 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of volunteer internship, students are certified as Rutgers Environmental Stewards.

Rutgers Environmental Stewards help their communities in numerous ways. Here are some examples from the Class of 2016:

Bill Allen interned with the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance in Newark, helping to identify sites for air pollution monitoring. The project is especially important to Newark due to the city’s high asthma rate.

Anne Siebecker formed the Highlands Nature Friends with other concerned citizens to stop the Weis Ecology Center in xxx from shutting down. After engaging the community and forming partnerships with local businesses, the group was successful in transforming the facility into the New Weis Center for Education, Arts & Recreation.

Donald Jones led the Cranford Environmental Commission in designing a rain garden to help alleviate flooding in the Union County town. He and about 45 community volunteers installed the rain garden, which captures over 38,000 gallons of stormwater per year from the Cranford municipal building’s downspouts.

Tracy Cicatelli and Anne Gale inventoried ash trees in Schooley’s Mountain County Park in Long Valley to help the Morris County Park Commission identify those that have been damaged by the invading Emerald Ash Borer.

Using the knowledge obtained from her Rutgers Environmental Stewards class on invasive species, Joanne Diglio designed, wrote and illustrated a children’s book on aquatic invasive plants and why they’re harmful to the environment.

In the past decade, more than 400 New Jersey residents have become certified Rutgers Environmental Stewards. Many have found the course helpful with their volunteer service on municipal planning boards and environmental commissions, while others have used their certification as a first step on a new career path.

If you love the environment, want to know more about the science behind it, want to start out the New Year with something new and want to get involved, consider becoming an environmental steward! Rutgers University is currently accepting applications for its Class of 2017.

Classes begin in mid to late January in five locations: Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Passaic County in Wayne; Duke Farms in Hillsborough; Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County in North Brunswick; the Atlantic County Utility Authority in Egg Harbor Township; and Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County in Westhampton.

To learn more about class locations, schedules and fees, go to the Rutgers Environmental Stewards website at http://envirostewards.rutgers.edu/Contacts.htm.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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