Coastal Conservation Trailblazer: Dery Bennett

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Most of us view the Jersey Shore as a place for a summer vacation or a day at the beach. But to Derickson W. Bennett, the coast was much more: a complex ecosystem, a habitat for wildlife, and a way of life.  Our coast lost what may have been its greatest advocate when Dery passed away on Dec. 15 at the age of 79.

The seeds of Dery’s lifelong love of the coast were planted at the Jersey Shore.  Dery grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and spent summer vacations at the Jersey Shore.  Even as a kid, he was fascinated by the flora and fauna as much as the sun and the sand.

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He took summer work during high school and college as a deckhand on a commercial boat in the Chesapeake Bay, on a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research vessel and even on tankers running from the Delaware Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

Dery found his life’s calling in 1968 when he heard about the fledgling American Littoral Society (ALS), a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of coastal habitats and wildlife. He wrote to ask if there were any job openings and soon became the group’s first full-time employee.

Under Dery’s piloting, ALS  – based at Fort Hancock on the tip of Sandy Hook  – grew to more than 5,000 members.  He led the Society to end dumping of sewage sludge, chemicals and other pollutants in the ocean, stop dredging and filling of coastal wetlands for development, and protect public access to the beach.  A true friend to the conservation community, Dery saved many natural coastal lands from development.

Dery retired in 2003 as ALS executive director, but remained active as the group’s director of special projects, focusing on public access issues and educating children.

“He really lived his life with passion,” said Tim Dillingham, Dery’s successor as ALS executive director. “There wasn’t much of a boundary between his life and his work. He just loved the coast, loved being on the beach, loved the wildlife.”

A resident of Fair Haven, Dery was known for spending his time outdoors.  “When he wasn’t in a meeting or at the office, he was out clamming or fishing or walking on the beach,” recalled Dillingham.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, an advocacy group that shares the same Sandy Hook building with ALS, described Dery in a newspaper interview as a “sage and leader” in the coastal and ocean conservation community.

His most lasting legacy, perhaps, is the mentoring of a new generation of coastal advocates, including Dillingham, Zipf and many, many others.
If you enjoy the Jersey Shore – or any beach along the East Coast, for that matter – be thankful for Dery Bennett.

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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