By Michele S. Byers
The year was 2002, and New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s board of trustees faced a tough decision. The owner of a nearly 10,000-acre cranberry farm in the Pine Barrens was getting out of the business. He wanted to know if NJ Conservation would buy his property for $12.5 million and turn it into a nature preserve.
The opportunity was incredible. The land was surrounded on almost all sides by public forest and parkland, and this 10,000 acres was referred to as both the “hole in the doughnut” and “the heart of the Pine Barrens.” But the board was divided over the daunting prospect of raising so much money, which could potentially detract from land preservation efforts elsewhere in the state.
That’s when Gordon “Sandy” Millspaugh spoke up and reminded his fellow trustees of the organization’s core mission to preserve land and natural resources throughout the Garden State. “If we don’t do it, what are we here for?” he asked.
That clinched the vote and the rest is history.
The property is now known as the Franklin Parker Preserve – named for the first chairman of the state Pinelands Commission – and it’s a true ecological treasure in the heart of the Pine Barrens. It is home to many rare plants and animals, and researchers from around the world have conducted scientific studies there. It has 27 miles of trails, including a section of the popular Batona Trail, and two wildlife observation platforms from which bald eagles can often be spotted.
Without Sandy Millspaugh’s voice of reason and responsibility, this amazing public preserve might not exist today.
Sandy passed away on Sept. 12 at the age of 83. He was a champion of land conservation, the environment, and humanity. He was known for his intelligence, integrity, kindness and generosity.
“Sandy Millspaugh was one of those special people who not only cared deeply about his community, but was willing to dedicate all his free time to making the world around him a better place,” reflected former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman. “He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.”
Sandy was a tax and estate attorney and devoted a substantial amount of his time to nonprofit and charitable organizations. He was a trustee at the Victoria Foundation, a Newark-based philanthropic organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and families in need, protecting water resources and preserving open space.
“Sandy Millspaugh served as a beloved trustee of Victoria Foundation for over 40 years,” said Irene Cooper-Basch, Executive Officer at Victoria Foundation. “With his heart of gold, Sandy kept us focused on doing everything humanly possible to alleviate the suffering of children and families living in poverty in Newark. As chair of the Environment Committee, Sandy cared deeply about saving those lands that held the state’s precious drinking water supply. And as chair of the Personnel Committee, he cared as much about the Foundation’s employees as he did about our mission. “
He was a board member at New Jersey Conservation Foundation for over 20 years, including two terms as president and several years as honorary trustee. He was instrumental in establishing the Red Oak Society to promote planned giving.
He served for two decades as trustee and counsel to the Upper Raritan Watershed Association (now Raritan Headwaters), where he conducted a feasibility study on protecting land through conservation easements. Easements allow conservation organizations to acquire and extinguish development rights on designated properties, without purchasing the land itself.
“Sandy helped so many of us in the land preservation business,” said Cindy Ehrenclou, executive director of Raritan Headwaters. “He provided guidance to us and was the reason we started accepting conservation easements.”
He was a charter trustee of the New Jersey Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and served for 12 years as a member of the NJ Hazardous Waste Commission. He was also a trustee at the Matheny School in Peapack, which serves children with disabilities.
Even as his health declined, Sandy remained active in causes close to his heart. Last winter, he attended a Bernardsville town council meeting to speak out in favor of a proposed law to protect underground aquifers.
“I strongly believe you can’t take water for granted,” Sandy told the council.
After Sandy’s passing, accolades poured in.
Ken Klipstein, current NJ Conservation president, described him as a “kind, generous and an inspiring leader.”
Chris Daggett, president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, remembered him as “a great person – down-to-earth, thoughtful, smart, insightful, kind, and a good guy to have on your side.”
Tom Wells, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy, described him as “a kind-spirited human being … in the same mold as Frank Parker, Ed Babbott, and so many other past NJ Conservation trustees.”
“Sandy was an outstanding president of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation board,” said David Moore, former Executive Director. “Sandy’s calm insight and acumen was a major asset to the organization and he was always ready to lend a helping hand to the board and employees. We got to be friends over the half century of our mutual involvement with NJ Conservation and I will miss him, and our talk of old times.”
Sandy is already deeply missed, but those of us lucky enough to know him will never forget him. May Sandy’s life inspire others to become kind hearted and generous conservation trailblazers, too!
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.