“Raise your hand if you want to be Candy Ashmun when you grow up!”

This was the question posed jokingly at the dedication ceremony for the 4,000-acre Candace McKee Ashmun Preserve at Forked River Mountain in the Pine Barrens. Immediately, dozens of hands shot up in a crowd filled with New Jersey’s conservation leaders.

Of course, everyone wanted to be Candy, who was 86 at that time! She was a hero to all of us: intelligent, fun, energetic, enthusiastic, shrewd, totally dedicated to protecting the environment, and with integrity beyond question. Youthful in mind and spirit, she could accomplish more in a day than most half her age. She was outspoken yet diplomatic, and never hesitated to stand up for what mattered to her. And she could smell a rat, which made for many discussions and lots of laughs.

New Jersey lost one of its most remarkable citizens when Candy passed away last week at the age of 96.

Candy was the last original member of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, having served for over 40 years. Although she never lived in the Pines, she earned the nickname “the godmother of the Pine Barrens” for her devotion tothis incredibly unique and beautiful region of New Jersey.

Candace McKee was born and raised in Oregon, and loved the outdoors and animals. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in physics in 1946, and moved to New Jersey the same year after marrying Charles Ashmun.

While raising their three children, Candy held down many jobs: editor and reporter at a local newspaper, freelance photographer, and water quality researcher and trustee at the Upper Raritan Watershed Association, now known as Raritan Headwaters. Later, she became the first executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC).

She served on the Bedminster Board of Education, Board of Adjustment and Environmental Commission, and as vice chair of the Far Hills Planning Board.

In 1979, Candy was appointed by Governor Brendan Byrne to the newly-established Pinelands Commission, which oversees more than a million miles of near-wilderness. She later recalled Byrne’s chief of staff telling her, “We need to have a woman and an environmentalist, and you’re it.”

“I just got there and never left,” she said in a 2010 interview. “I fell in love with the Pine Barrens, which is interesting because I came from the Northwest, where the mountains are 11,000 feet and the trees are 200 feet. The Pines are just a very subtle place.”

She always got a kick out of the fact that the Forked River Mountains of Ocean County – where her namesake preserve is located - are only about 200 feet in elevation.

I first met Candy at a job interview in the Pine Barrens when she was the Executive Director of the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions. I will never forget nervously picking my way along a pine needle covered path through a cedar swamp on my way to meet Candy in my only dress.

I was lucky enough to land the job and experience her extraordinary leadership firsthand, her can-do spirit and ability to inspire others. She became a mentor to me and literally hundreds of other young conservationists.

Candy taught me never to give up and to always find a way around every obstacle in the way of a conservation goal, and to be brave. With Candy’s support behind me, I worked as hard as I could to protect the Pines – and lands throughout New Jersey.

Candy believed in a cooperative approach to getting things done. For more than 40 years she organized informal monthly meetings of environmental leaders where anyone could speak their mind in an atmosphere of mutual respect. “It’s much better to sit down and talk than to not talk – or throw arrows at each other,” she said.

There’s much that can be said about Candy: her many years of service on the State Planning Commission, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, the Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment, the Fund for New Jersey, the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association. She was also a longtime volunteer for New Jersey Conservation Foundation!

Philanthropist and poet Scott McVay, an admirer of Candy for many years, read his poem to her at the dedication of the Candace McKee Ashmum Preserve at Forked River Mountain:

From the sky

it’s the only dark spot

at night

in the blaze of Bos-Wash corridor

lights.

What?

The Pine Barrens

sitting astride

17 trillion gallons

of pristine water

speckled with quiet plants

subtle things

found along the edge

or beyond

a piney back road:

pink lady slipper,

sandwort spatterdock,

swamp magnolia,

pyxie moss,

broom crowberry,

orange milkwort,

the dragon mouth orchid,

October blue blue gentian.

How big?

One million acres

one fifth of

the Garden,

the densest people-place

on Earth.

How was this great swatch

with four meandering rivers

spared?

Well, success has

many mothers.

We name four:

McPhee who wrote the book,

Byrne who read the book

and asked

Franklin Parker

to chair the commission

and Candy Ashmun to hold

the compass.

Let’s hear more about this woman

who stayed with it

valiant, vigilant witness

voice for

the flora and fauna,

patron saint of what

we hold dear

what is endearing,

part of the tough

decisions

seeking to stop

the nibbling

away at the edge

even the heart of

the place.

Well, she’s a Yankee,

right?

like Robert Frost, right?

Nay, both are West Coasters,

she from the red zone of Mt. Helena,

after living a decade

in Rio and the mountains.

As the middle one

of three kids,

she felt fatherly pressure

to go to Stanford

but chose to come

East to Northhampton

where she took,

as Shaw put it,

the line of greatest advantage

rather than the path of

least resistance,

by studying physics

to find out why.

As observant as Frost

as warm as toast

as firm as nails,

as witty as May, Elaine May,

the ideal one

to ride shotgun with Franklin

to keep things going

when folks spun

into a blue funk,

the essence of persistence,

the soul of a sacred place

of marshlands and fires

celebrated by Least Heat Moon

in Blue Highways,

where she was going to live

in the mud to see

miracles, undocumented

night moths, majestic cedars,

barred owls hooted in by Emile.

What a difference land use makes!

Who hired matchless Michele?

You know by now.

From the Pinelands, now interwoven

with her DNA,

she learned how ecology works,

& from Franklin,

how people work.

Mother of three,

a teacher, a farmer,

and a fisherman,

with eight grands,

three greats.

We dedicate

The Fork-ed River

Preserve for Candace who never

spoke in forked tongue

but ever led the way.

How we love her!

To learn more 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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