We need more Pete McLain. When you go through a list of all of the things this man did for Barnegat Bay, for New Jersey, and for wildlife, it is almost unbelievable. Sure Pete didn’t do it all by himself. But all of the wonderful things he accomplished, which have become his legacy, which he gifted to us, would probably not have been so successful, or maybe not even have happened at all, without him.
Pete McLain was known to be a great storyteller, but really he was a story maker. Everyone who knew him has these incredible stories about Pete which they love to tell, and we love to hear. He was certainly a character. He is well remembered as a skilled leader, a shrewd negotiator, a clever compromiser, and a bit of a wise guy. He clearly knew how to get things done. He had skill, and he had passion. Sure he had a fancy degree in Wildlife Management from Cornell. Yet his passion was driven by the same simple things we enjoy; he was an avid hunter, fisherman, and photographer of Barnegat Bay. He made it his career to take care of this place because he liked spending his time off here.
Most importantly, Pete McLain had vision. I believe it was a truly simple vision. What Pete McClain saw so clearly was Barnegat Bay for what it actually is. What it has always been. How it was created. How it was meant to be. He saw the entirety of fundamental reason we love it so much. It’s as simple as that.
Pete surely saw the immense value in this and recognized that this place, the way it was created, is what we all love about it in the first place. All of the roads, the homes, the docks, the traffic, the boats… all of us people… all of that is secondary. All of that only exists to help us enjoy this place more conveniently and more elegantly. But it is really the coast as it was originally created without us which draws us here. To say we love the shore because it is a beautiful place with a fascinating ecosystem sounds so stupidly obvious that it is not even worth saying. Yet in reality we probably need to be saying it more.
Pete also recognized that most of us were not generally so clear headed… that we were getting so distracted by the houses we were building and the jobs we were creating that we started missing the big picture. In one sense, his work was him snapping his fingers in our faces to wake us up from our dreams and bring us back to earth. To remind us of why we came here in the first place, why we stay, and why we invest our futures in it. Pete McLain did not want to destroy the reasons he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and taking pictures here while he was busy making it more convenient for him to hunt, fish and take pictures here. And he didn’t want us to either! He knew this place is fragile, he knew we could be short sighted, and he knew of the great risk that we might tip the balance irreversibly. He worked tirelessly to preserve lands, create laws, to educate us, and to fix the balances we’d already disastrously tipped. Pete McLain was saving us from ourselves because he saw the big picture so easily, and so clearly.
We need more Pete McLain. When we talk about the coast today, we tend to talk about the economy, the real estate, the flood insurance, the jobs. We focus on the secondary things. The things which will have no value at all if we destroy the natural splendor which created their value in the first place, and will maintain it in the future. If we actually care about the economy, real estate values, jobs, family, and recreation, then we care about conservation. A lot. More than we probably think. And when we don’t, we are not seeing things straight.
And once we get past the very logical and practically inarguable self interest we have in strong conservation and clear headed management of the coast’s natural resources, the gigantic vision Pete must have seen in his mind’s eye overwhelms us. That’s the moment we realize that everything here has immense value, just the way it was created. It is not about what we like, what we prefer, what interests us, or what happens to be most convenient, expeditious, or profitable.
Take our Piping Plover. Or Terrapin. Or Clams. Or Marsh. Or eelgrass. It doesn’t matter if we like them, or find them inconvenient, or have ever even noticed them. Once we see the world with Pete’s wisdom, we start to realize they all have immense value simply because they are part of the picture. It’s just that simple. You don’t have to like fish, or turtles, or worms, or mud, or shells, or floods, or golden rod directly. You just have to see the beautiful painting they’ve created, the one that creates all the value here, and recognize that everything natural here is like a brush stroke or color in the palette.
It’s then when you understand why Pete McLain was obsessed with eelgrass, and you appreciate it, even when you don’t know why.
Lucky for us, Pete McLain has hopped the inlet from Island Beach State Park, and he is here with us this summer to remind us why we love the shore so much.