By Michele S. Byers
New Jersey’s parks, forests, farms, trails, meadows and wildlife habitats are preserved today in large part due to the many individual conservation trailblazers in this state we’re in. Individuals really do make a difference,
You may not have heard of Tom Gilmore, but if you live in New Jersey you can be sure your community is a better place because of his tireless efforts to protect natural places and wildlife.
Tom, who passed away on Nov. 7 at the age of 74, was a true conservation trailblazer. As head of the New Jersey Audubon Society for nearly 30 years, he had a strong appreciation of the importance of nature in our lives and he made an extraordinary impact on safeguarding it.
Tom came to New Jersey Audubon in 1983 after serving as general manager of the Philadelphia Zoo. During his time at New Jersey Audubon he expanded the organization from a birding club with a membership of 3,000 and a staff of 10, to a thriving conservation organization with 20,000 members and a staff of 80.
Tom was an avid fly fisherman and conservationist, and he worked to gain key legal protections for land, water and wildlife throughout the Garden State. He also established many educational programs to connect adults and children with nature.
One of the first challenges Tom took on was saving New Jersey’s wetlands from the rampant and often careless sprawl of development of the 1980s. Wetlands are a vital habitat for a broad diversity of wildlife, but at the time there was nothing to prevent them from being filled and disturbed.
Working with then-Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden, Tom helped pass a new law to protect not only wetlands, but the critical habitats surrounding them. The Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act, the strongest wetlands protection bill in the nation, was signed by Gov. Tom Kean in 1987.
The development boom of the 1980s was also having a destructive impact on the New Jersey Highlands region in the northwestern part of the state – a source of clean drinking water for more than five million people and a key wildlife habitat. Some 860,000 acres of sensitive watershed lands were at risk.
The state’s conservation community realized they would have to band together to protect the Highlands. They established The New Jersey Highlands Coalition in 1988, with Tom as its first president. The group’s goal was to gain permanent safeguards for the region’s water supply.
Tom left the New Jersey Highlands Coalition two years later when he was appointed to the bi-state Skylands Greenway Task Force, which released a report calling for regional land use planning in the Highlands.
Tom’s early leadership helped lay the groundwork for what was to come. In 2004, after years of advocacy by the Highlands Coalition, Gov. James McGreevey signed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, a landmark victory for conservation.
At the opposite end of the state, Tom worked to protect migratory birds. Scientists were realizing the crucial role horseshoe crabs play in supporting long-distance migratory shorebirds like the red knot: their rich eggs provide birds with desperately needed energy to complete their journey from the tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic.
Horseshoe crabs were being over-harvested for bait, and without them the red knot and other species could not survive.
Under Tom’s leadership, New Jersey Audubon launched a “Halt the Harvest” campaign to save horseshoe crabs and the shorebirds that depend on them.
The campaign was successful: in 2008, the state Legislature passed a law placing a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs. Four years later, the red knot was placed on New Jersey’s endangered species list, giving it additional protections.
Tom was also a strong and effective advocate for open space preservation. In the 1990s, he served as vice chair (with Maureen Ogden as chair) of the Governor’s Council on the Outdoors. This task force was charged with assessing New Jersey’s open space needs and determining the best way to fund land acquisition.
The council’s recommendation to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman became her signature initiative to permanently preserve one million acres of open space and farmland in 10 years, the largest and most ambitious land acquisition program in state history.
I first got to know Tom when I worked closely with him in the late 1980s in his role as the first treasurer of the fledgling Pinelands Preservation Alliance. We spent many hours together going over budgets and financial reports. He made budgets fun and interesting, and generously shared his expertise and knowledge.
Tom was also concerned with making sure open space was well cared for after being preserved – that ecological values and biodiversity were protected, and meaningful public access was secured.
Tom was a man of great integrity and humility, and a friend and mentor to me and many in the conservation community. He leaves an amazing legacy: thousands of acres of preserved wetlands, forests, wildlife habitat and natural areas that will be enjoyed by generations to come – and education programs that entice children and adults to fall in love with nature and become its defenders.
Thank you, Tom!
To learn more about Tom’s life and accomplishments, visit the New Jersey Audubon Society tribute page at https://njaudubon.org/tom-gilmore/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org