Three veterans to lead environmental advocacy group

Trio named to replace retiring director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Credit: (Courtesy of NJ Conservation Foundation)
The new leadership at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation will comprise, L to R: Alison Mitchell, Tom Gilbert and John S. “Jay’’ Watson

For only the fourth time in 62 years, leadership of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation is changing hands, but this time it will be directed jointly by three staff members at the nonprofit organization.

The newly appointed team will replace Michele Byers, who is retiring at the end of the year, her 39th with the group, with the last 22 as executive director. The private group focuses on preserving land and natural resources throughout New Jersey.

Beginning next year, Byers will be replaced by Alison Mitchell, current assistant director and acting development director; Tom Gilbert, campaign director for climate, energy and natural resources; and John S. “Jay’’ Watson, director of statewide land protection and community relations.

The foundation has been perhaps the prominent advocate in the past six decades for preserving open space and farmland in New Jersey as well as backing the safeguarding of the New Jersey Pinelands and New Jersey Highlands. In addition to protecting over 125,000 acres of open space, farmlands and parks, it also has promoted land conservation policies at all levels of government.

In explaining the organization’s decision to share leadership responsibilities, a board member said it was done to take full advantage of the deep talent and expertise already existing within the staff.

Sharing responsibilities

“We think this is the best model and approach for NJ Conservation Foundation’s future,’’ said Dr. Rosina “Nina’’ Dixon, the board president. “Sharing executive responsibilities will allow the co-directors to draw on their areas of expertise to propel us forward on our visionary strategic plan.’’

Byers agreed. “We have a strong team of senior staff at New Jersey Conservation right now,’’ she said, adding she is thrilled and confident the trio will do an outstanding job running the organization.

Mitchell, the current assistant director, has worked for the foundation for nearly 30 years. Before becoming assistant director, she served as the policy director, advocating in Trenton and Washington for key environmental protections and funding for New Jersey’s lands and natural resources.

Gilbert joined the foundation in 2015 as campaign director for energy, climate and natural resources. In that role, he led ReThink Energy’s effort to stop the PennEast pipeline. Prior to that, he was with the Trust for Public Land where he helped win approval of a $400 million bond issue in 2009 and a constitutional amendment in 2014 to fund state preservation programs.

Watson has been with the group since 2019, after a 30-year career at the state Department of Environmental Protection, where among other things, he led the Green Acres program. He retired from the DEP as deputy commissioner.

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