“Nancy! Nancy! Nancy!” wails the high-pitched plea from a far corner of the Rush Holt Environmental Education Center in the Plainsboro Preserve.
A visitor, distressed by the cries, pulls her attention away from the scores of birds bustling around the tiers of feeder stations outside and looks around the center’s large expanse. Peering past the nature library shelves, the spotting scopes focused on McCormack Lake outside the building, and the snake terrariums, her eyes vainly search the indoor tree house.
“Isn’t someone going to help that poor child?” the woman asks Lorraine Jackson, the volunteer behind the reception desk?
“Oh, no,” says Jackson. “That’s only Ringo. He’s an injured starling whom we found and adopted over a decade ago. He picked up our language deceptively well, don’t you think?”
A few moments later, Nancy Fiske, director of the Plainsboro Preserve, appears, sporting a smug-looking Ringo on her forearm. (Prior to Fiske taking the director’s post in 2013, the politically savvy starling would ply his mimicry with equal effectiveness on her predecessor, Sean Grace.)
Until Oct. 31, school groups and summer campers, in the midst of learning first-hand that snakes are indeed not slimy, might have been greeted by Ringo’s hauntingly humanesque calls. But no more.
This past summer, New Jersey Audubon informed the township that it could no longer afford to manage the preserve for the entire year. NJA’s paid staff is now gone, along with Ringo and most of the other animals that were housed in the building. The organization will continue on in a limited capacity and manage the education center for about half the year.
Despite the NJA’s cutbacks, Plainsboro Township officials say the preserve is a valued community resource, and they are dedicated to making sure it continues to thrive.
“This did not hit us as a shock or a burden,” says Anthony Cancro, Plainsboro township administrator. “We realize times change, and nonprofits everywhere are stressed. We still look forward to a continuing collaboration with New Jersey Audubon to provide the best for our preserve.”
Since the ribbon was cut in June 2003 at the 1,000-acre haven on Scotts Corner Road, the preserve has served as a model of cooperation between the township and the environmental organization.
Officially, New Jersey Audubon managed the Preserve on behalf of Plainsboro Township. In fact, the collaboration blossomed into an enthusiastic synergy involving an inventive range of programs including school visits, lectures, wildlife walks, bird counts, (including the World Series of Birding), summer camps, bluebird box adoptions and art exhibitions. N.J. Audubon also maintained the site’s five plus miles of trails.
With NJA gone, the township will continue to provide the preserve’s ranger services and the department of public works will take care of maintaining the center, plowing the drives and keeping all parts repaired and accessible.
Under the new arrangement with NJA, the center will now be under split management. Plainsboro Recreation Department staff will operate the center from Nov. 1 to March 31, and NJA will take over from April 1 to Oct. 31., mostly with volunteers.
Previously open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the center’s new hours will be Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Trail hours will remain the same: dawn to dusk, with hours flexing throughout the year. Currently its open from 7 a.m.-5 p.m.
The animals, mammalian and reptilian, previously at the center have been relocated to new homes, and Ringo has gone to live with Fiske.
Tara Miller takes over directing the sanctuary during the township’s winter term, between November and March. She was originally an NJA employee, and she now works for the township’s recreation department.
Miller boasts one of the longest records of service with the preserve since its inception. When the trails first opened and the Environmental Education Center was in the initial construction phases, she joined original director Brian Vernacio in running the center from a barely heated trailer that was located in what is now the parking lot.
“It was exciting,” she recalls, “but awfully cold.”
After leaving to go work for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association for a while, Miller returned to the township as program director for the preserve. In that role, she coordinates a multitude of efforts. Living on a farm adjacent to the preserve, it became her job to open up when snow prevented other staff members from making it in.
Miller grew up in the very rural lands near State College, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a traveling construction worker father and a mother who was the second female nurse ever to serve in the nearby maximum security prison.
“I grew up loving the natural world and wanting to roam through the outdoors,” she says. After earning her bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Pittsburgh, helping others discover the world outside seemed like the next logical step.
As for her plans for the Plainsboro Preserve, “This will be our trial year,” says Miller. “We really want to find out what programs people want. But we are lining up several possible ideas, and we’ll just try things out and see what will serve people best.”
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The story of the Plainsboro Preserve began with a few hundred acres of land, a lake, and a failed business venture. In the mid-1960s, the McCormack Sand and Gravel Company set up a processing plant hoping to provide materials for cement companies and fill for the Meadowlands.
It worked, for awhile. Its dredging of the swampy Devil’s Brook flood plain created the deep, 50-acre McCormack Lake, which glistens as centerpiece of the Preserve today. But by 1976, permitting problems, flooding and financial woes forced the plant to close.
Many people deserve credit for the creation of the preserve, but none as much as Mayor Peter Cantu whose vision and masterful funding maneuvers brought the parcels together and the dream to fruition.
According to sources, Cantu used to fish on the lake when the site was still under private ownership, and it became his passion to make sure the property was not developed. Over the years, the township the tract and rejected proposals that would have seen the site developed with expensive houses with spectacular lakeside views.
It took Cantu many years to put together the deals that ultimately made the preserve a reality. “Compiling the preserve land demanded a multitude of vehicles,” Cantu said.
After years of negotiations with the land’s owners—Walker Gordon Laboratory Company and Turkey Island Corporation, Plainsboro Township raised the $2.9 million purchase price and bought the initial 530-acre tract surrounding the lake.
Cantu further lobbied Middlesex County officials, convincing them to provide funding via its Open Space Trust Fund. This added another 401 acres, and another 126 acres of the adjacent Perrine Tract were later bundled in.
“The creation of this over 1,000-acre facility and its education center are one of the things I truly look back on with great pride,” Cantu said.
In 2001, ground was broken for the Environmental Education Center. And, though painfully slow in progressing, the 6,500 square-foot facility was paid for entirely through fundraisers and private donations.
In May, 2015, The center was renamed The Rush Holt Environmental Education Center, in thanks for the then-congressman’s continued support and his help in raising federal Green Acres funds for the Preserve.
The dénouement to Plainsboro’s Preserve engineering drama came with the NJA collaboration. Wholly separate from the National Audubon Society, NJA was founded in 1897, and maintains stewardship of 34 sanctuaries throughout the state.
The organization has experience in both protecting the Garden State’s wildlife and its habitats and fostering a conservation ethic among its residents. More importantly, it attracts passionate, highly creative experts, who have understood and led Plainsboro Preserve’s vision.
The seemingly endless assortment of programs is the result of teamwork between Audubon sanctuary directors Vernachio, Grace and Fiske, joined by Miller.
According to statistics, more than 400,000 visitors have enjoyed preserve during its 16-year history.
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Volunteer Lorraine Jackson, who each Friday for the past dozen years has staffed the center’s reception desk, says her favorite activities include laying down fresh tracks in the new fallen snow as she points her skis toward the beach forests to photograph the branches bowed low under the pristine white.
For participants in the preserve’s seven, week-long Nature Camps, the personal favorites list grows longer, and more enthusiastic.
Veteran preserve summer camper Emily Werner, now in 7th grade, describes the entire preserve as, “my favoritest place ever.”
With smiles and energy she recounts the process of wading deep into the lake and its small feeder rills to net and study shimmering fish. Vividly she describes following monarch and swallowtail butterflies through the brush, spotting leeches in vernal pools, and, after many tries, starting fire with leafy tinder using flint and steel. She also loves playing capture the flag with the other campers and nature scavenger hunts.
“But my new favorite animal is the praying mantis,” Emily says. “They are incredible. You watch them decapitate and eat a bee and it gives you, well, a respect for nature and what animals need to do.”
Sophie Werner, Emily’s older sister, refers to the preserve as “like a second home during summer.” Currently a high school junior, Sophie served as a camp counselor this past summer, helping herd groups of 15 to 20 campers in a unit along the trails and help with their next discoveries in the field.
“One of my preserve favorites was the survival week at camp,” Sophie says. Detailing the steps of gathering first logs, then sticks, then brush to make a pyramidal shelter, she displays a surprisingly sharp knowledge of the resources at hand in the outdoors.
She adds that the best part comes when the team of shelter builders is sent crouching inside, while another camper runs to the lake, scoops up a bucket of water, and pours it over the shelter to see if they can find some crevice to douse the construction crew waiting below. The ultimate test.
“Animals have to know that this land is theirs, and they won’t be bothered by humans running all through the woods,” Sophie says. “Even when we have the Night for Teens, we stay around the center, because we don’t want to disturb the animals after dark.”
“It’s a sanctuary,” adds her sister.
The Werners say they are looking forward to returning to their preserve home away from home next summer. When asked about their thoughts on what we humans might deal with the natural world around us, Emily responded, “We’ve become disruptive in the natural world, and we need to fix that.”
Sophie, without a moment’s hesitation replied, “It’s simple—we need to live in harmony.”