By Pam Hersh
John S. Watson Jr., a.k.a. Jay, grew up in an environment that featured the hallways and offices of New Jersey’s government buildings.
For his life’s work, however, he chose to broaden his environment outside of those hallways by focusing on the outside, as in the outdoors.
Leading several environmental programs – both in government and nonprofit sectors – over the past four decades, a few weeks ago, Jay joined the staff of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) as the senior director of Statewide Land Protection and Community Relations.
Jay’s father, who passed in 1996, is the much-revered New Jersey governmental leader John S. Watson Sr., who served for six terms in the state Assembly and before that was the first African American elected (in 1970) to the Mercer County Freeholder Board. Jay’s sister is the renowned New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a former state legislator, who now represents New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. Jay has taken the political skills that are so much a part of the Watson family dynamic, and merged them with a passion for conservation and protection of the environment.
NJCF, one of the largest and most successful conservation organizations in the state, gives him the opportunity to develop and implement strategies for protecting lands from High Point to Cape May Point and everything in between.
“I have worked with and respected NJCF from afar throughout my career that began at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program in 1981. Now, 38 years later, I get to work with NJCF’s incredible leadership and staff directly. It is a great honor for me and I look forward to rounding out my career, doing all that I can to protect the best of what’s left in New Jersey, the densest state in the nation and the first state in the nation to be built out… I will have the chance to help shape our landscape, and we will be working hard to make sure that everyone, in every community has access to quality open space and permanently protected public lands,” Jay said.
I am particularly familiar with Jay’s passion and talents for environmental protection because, for the past nine years, he has been the vice president of D&R Greenway Land Trust, a Princeton nonprofit land conservancy working to preserve and restore New Jersey’s landscape.
Jay managed all aspects of the Land Acquisition Program and led special project initiatives. Those initiatives included developing infrastructure projects on D&R Greenway preserves; acquisition and implementation of Capital City Farm (adjacent to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen); management of the Circuit Trails Project that will reconnect segments of the D&R Canal path through Trenton ultimately connecting the Delaware River Heritage Trail; and restoration of Trenton’s Battle Monument Park.
In the process of saving the outdoors, Jay never abandoned the indoor hallways and conference rooms of New Jersey’s government office buildings. Political advocacy and education have been key to Jay’s work.
Jay served as co-chair for Gov. Phil Murphy’s Environmental Transition Team and co-chair for Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s Transition Team for Greening, Sustainability, Natural Resources and Recreation. During Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s administration, he served on the Delaware River Basin Commission; co-chaired the New Jersey Invasive Species Council; and served on the NYNJ Harbor Estuary Program Policy Committee. When working for NJDEP, Jay represented the DEP commissioner on several important environmental organizations, such as the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust Board of Trustees.
In his new job, Jay will continue and strengthen New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s work in preserving land throughout the state. He will also deepen the foundation’s work developing partnerships and engaging New Jersey’s diverse communities.
“Having worked on waterfront reclamation and redevelopment projects in the cities of Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, Elizabeth, Trenton and Camden, I know that providing quality outdoor civic spaces makes a meaningful difference to both the health and happiness of both the natural environment, and the people who live within a 10-15 minute walk who will enjoy it,” he said.
Jay’s experiences as a youth in the outdoors sparked his determination to save it.
“I spent all my days as a young boy wandering around the woods buffering the Shabakunk Creek in Ewing Township, where I grew up. When you spend time in the woods and along our creeks, nature tends to seep into your soul and stays with you forever. I’m lucky to have made a long career protecting that which I love so much,” said Jay, who studied environmental horticulture at Mercer County Community College and, then, at Florida A&M.
Born and raised in Ewing, he currently lives in Lawrenceville and often enjoys the fruits of his labor by hiking, birding, biking and outdoor photography. “My jobs always have been far more than a paycheck. The real reward is creating an environment that not only benefits me and my family directly everyday, but also everyone in the state of New Jersey immediately and long into the future.
“My sister always said that I, as a kid, generally had snakes and frogs in my pocket when I returned home from one of my adventures – traipsing through the woods along the stream,” he said.
Now, his tools for convincing people of the wonders of nature have gotten a little more sophisticated than popping a live reptile out of his pocket. Using words rather than live creatures, he continuously works to convey not only the joy of the outdoors, but also the absolutely necessity for preserving this treasured resource.