Who she is: Michele S. Byers, Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Why she matters: One of the state’s most active land-stewardship groups, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has protected more than 120,000 acres of open space and farmland since 1960.
Byers signed on in 1982 as coordinator of advocacy efforts in the Pine Barrens. She was instrumental in fostering the state’s Farmland Preservation Program and promoting Camden City’s Cooper River Greenway. She’s headed up the foundation since 1999.
An army brat: Byers military family moved a lot when she was a kid, but she cultivated a love for nature everywhere along the way — whether camping in the mountains in Germany or fishing and horseback riding in Colorado.
“That’s been the theme throughout my life, nature and outdoors and animals.”
Her checkered career: Byers first came to New Jersey as a senior in high school and attended Trenton State for a year to study the violin. Then she went to Virginia Tech for geology, eventually dropping out to waitress and work other jobs — including a stint as animal warden for Bernards Township. It was a hard job, she recalls. “I wanted to bring them all home.”
She dropped back into Colorado to study biology. After graduation she headed for the Pine Barrens, where she worked with a non-profit affiliated with Rowan University to develop curriculum materials and teach children about recycling and the environment.
“We were creating new ground and doing new things and thinking we were changing the world,” she said. “I found my way one step at a time into finding that I really loved advocating for nature.”
How the environmental movement is doing: Byers says she agrees with a lot of her contemporaries that in a sense, the movement is a victim of its own success.
“There’s been so much progress made, a lot of our rivers and streams and even oceans have been cleaned up from the visible pollution rampant in the 1960s and ’70s. I think people are more complacent now. The threats that we have today in the way of reduction of water supply, climate change, sea level rise — they’re all these issues that are less visible.”
The continued need for land conservation: “We are now the busiest we’ve ever been, with many landowners talking to us about wanting to preserve their land,” she said. “But the money’s run out at the state level.”
She added, “We’re going to more towns, counties, foundations and sometimes landowners themselves.”
She acknowledged the success of preservation efforts over the past several years, noting that “hundreds of thousands of acres have been preserved.” But, she continued, “There’s still 2 million acres left in New Jersey that haven’t been preserved. A lot important to wetlands, farmland, and forests . . . it’s just a question of when the real estate market comes back. Pressure is going to come back on all of those lands.”
Family: Byers was married for 10 years to Rutgers Ecology Professor Ted Stiles. He died seven years ago, but she remains very close to his family, children and grandchildren. “He was probably one of the most important people in my life,” she said.
Most recent kudo: Last month, the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs recognized Byers with the Woman of Achievement award.
In her spare time: She still picks up the violin to play with friends, but her favorite thing to do is ride her horses. She rides four to six times a week. “The exercise of it is fantastic. The challenge of it is amazing, the goal of it is to be in harmony with your horse. It’s a passion I’m very lucky that I have. It really keeps me going.”