June 20, 2017 Share

D&R Greenway Honors Botanist Mary Allessio Leck with Annual Conservation Award

On June 16, D&R Greenway Land Trust presented Botanist and Rider University Biology Professor Emeritus Mary Allessio Leck with the Donald B. Jones Conservation Award.

Dr. Leck has devoted more than four decades to the preservation of what is now known as the Abbott Marshlands in Hamilton, Trenton and Bordentown. The 3,000-acre urban wetland, rich with biological diversity, has been preserved as an educational, historical and recreational resource, thanks to Dr. Leck’s commitment.

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Leck brought awareness about the significance of this wilderness in an urban area to the attention of D&R Greenway, a land trust dedicated to land preservation and stewardship.  Linda Mead, President & CEO of D&R Greenway, remembers how Leck’s quiet leadership transformed a forgotten wasteland into a recognized resource for environmental education.  “Mary’s unwavering dedication as a scientist taught others that the integrity of the Marsh was of paramount importance,” says Mead.  “Just as Dr. Seuss’ Lorax spoke for the trees, Mary spoke for the Marsh, and others listened. She embodies the spirit of our annual Donald B. Jones Conservation Award.”

“Whether she is leading an educational hike for adults and families or sharing her knowledge with professionals, Mary Leck’s enthusiasm for the unique Abbott Marshlands is undeniable and contagious,” says Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. “First and foremost, Mary is a teacher. She has been instrumental in helping us make the Marsh accessible, from writing field trip curriculum for our naturalists, creating interpretive signage at Roebling Park or preparing art exhibits at our nature center. Mary embodies what it means to be a true conservationist. Her dedication, professionalism, volunteerism and determination to preserve and protect the Marsh forever allows generations of people to benefit from its beauty.”

Dr. Leck first began taking students to do fieldwork in the Marsh more than 40 years ago. “My introduction to the Marsh was with a Rider student interested in an independent study project,” she says. “Since then scores of students, from elementary to university, have come to learn about wetlands and the plants and animals that live there.”  Dr. Leck’s students have experienced the tides, including getting stuck in mud. They have marveled at the lush growth of plants— the wild rice grows more than 10 feet tall in a single season.  “It was a group of students, twirlers and band members from Trenton Central High School, who totally got into exploring a new muddy terrain in hip boots, who made me realize the educational potential of the marshlands for kids who live so close by.

“Repeat visits are necessary for establishing strong bonds,” continues Dr. Leck, who founded the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands. “I hope that some young person is so totally turned on by wetland plants that he or she devotes a lifetime to studying them. I hope, too, that the joy of seeing a spider web, a new leaf in the spring, or even ice left by the ebbing tide will be a satisfying experience of all who open their hearts to the rich tapestry of life and history found there.”

The Marsh is an important educational resource and the subject of more than 60 ecological articles and book chapters. Dr. Leck’s personal research interests involved the ecology of seed germination of marsh plants and discovering the kinds and numbers of seeds hidden in marsh mud. “This path began with questions arising from a serendipitous observation of seedlings of Jewelweed apparently growing in the bottom of a stream,” she notes. “These studies, as well as those by archaeologists, provide important background for teachers and students of all ages. They also bring recognition well beyond New Jersey.”

An oasis of natural beauty, the Abbott Marshlands is a unique urban wetland where osprey, marsh wrens, and many kinds of butterflies and dragonflies live.  The occasional beluga whale and harp seal have been visitors. Human visitors, in addition to students on field trips, include hikers, cyclists, bird watchers, canoeists and kayakers, fishers and hunters, and photographers and artists. Their experiences are enhanced by offerings at the Tulpehaking Nature Center that was created by Mercer County in partnership with D&R Greenway and the NJ Green Acres Program. New apps are now available that provide paddling and walking tours, and 15 new signs with trail maps will be in place by early spring 2018. Dr. Leck played a leading role in developing all of these. “For new visitors paddling on a sunny day, the new TravelStorys app is an opportunity to understand the ecological and culture significance of the area,” she noted. “At home or in the classroom, the voice narration coupled with photos can entice and enhance the experience before a canoe even launches.”

In addition to her ecological studies, Dr. Leck has been tireless in promoting the Marshlands: she’s been involved with developing two management plans, an agreement that led to the formation of the Abbott Marshlands Council, an invasive species inventory, a teachers’ manual, lesson plans, and the Abbott Marshlands website. She was director for several years of PROBE, a Rider University Biology Department program to teach AP Biology high school students about field research. She’s given numerous talks and walks touting the Marshlands’ significance, has organized field trip schedules for more than 15 years, and helped with at least a dozen exhibits and photography shows that featured the Marsh.  She and her husband, Charlie Leck, professor emeritus, ecological sciences, Cook College, Rutgers University, have developed inventories of plants and animals that provide evidence of the Marsh’s rich organism diversity. Having written many agendas and attended countless meetings, she notes “This isn’t a one-person show—many have contributed time, ideas and support.”

As indication of its natural and cultural significance, the Marsh has been designated a Very Important Bird and Birding Area by NJ Audubon and a Natural Heritage Priority Site by NJDEP. It is part of the Abbott Farm National Historical Landmark, a designation it received in 1976 by US Department of Interior because of its archaeological importance, and is within the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area. It has been featured in two NJN documentaries, Turning the Tide (2006) and Bonaparte’s Retreat (2009). In 2014, building on ecological research and using the marshlands for research projects, class trips and varied educational programs, the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands received the Dr. Ruth Patrick Award for Excellence in Education, from the Water Resources Association for the Delaware River Basin.

After serving 17 years on D&R Greenway’s Board of Trustees, Dr. Leck continues to serve on the Stewardship Committee and Friends for the Abbott Marshlands, a D&R Greenway partnership, as “the Voice for the Marsh.”  “The value of the Abbott Marshlands to society is considerable, as they provide many services, including removal of nutrients and other pollutants from water that enter from numerous storm and highway drains and recharge of ground water,” says Dr. Leck. “Probably of more interest to residents and visitors, the Marshlands provide recreational opportunities including kayaking and canoeing, hiking, picnicking, photography, bird watching, fishing, biking and geocaching.”  She expects that the new apps and signage will make the Marshlands even more accessible.

A true Renaissance woman, Dr. Leck has coedited books about the ecology of soil seed banks and seedlings, and her photographs not only grace the pages of D&R Greenway’s newsletter, enews announcements and web pages, but have been exhibited on such gallery walls as Ellarslie, Phillip’s Mill, the Gallery at the Chapin School and right here at the Johnson Education Center. Whether she focuses her lens on ice crystals or flowers, finding beautiful patterns in nature, she is working hand-in-hand with the artistry of the wild. “Underlying my photography is the fun of exploring, discovering, and trying to figure out explanations for what I’ve seen.”

D&R Greenway’s Donald B. Jones Conservation Award is presented annually to a person who embodies D&R Greenway’s mission to inspire a conservation ethic. Donald B. Jones (1911-1994) was a determined preservationist who committed his time and resources saving the land and historic landmarks that give our region its sense of place. Awardees display a similar selfless generosity, making a significant impact on the landscape. The Donald B. Jones Conservation Award has been given to a former Governor, a Congressman, a community and a 10-year-old environmental activist. What they have in common is a love for the land and a commitment to action that results in land preservation.