Sand in my Shoes: After retiring from DEP, Greenwich Township man continues to advocate for the environment

Larry Niles, of Greenwich, is a former state DEP official who now basically volunteers to protect the environment — in particularly the Delaware Bay — and is one of the founders of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. He works often at Reeds Beach, an important spot for horseshoe crabs and red knots, a bird he has helped protect. Niles has co-written a book titled ‘life Along the Delaware Bay — Cape May Gateway to a Million Shorebirds.’

Larry Niles' 30-year career in wildlife biology has taken him around a lot of the world.

"Tierra del Fuego. Chile. Brazil. ... The Arctic," he says, running through a few of the highlights from a map in his memory. "Guadeloupe, French Guiana. Mexico. And all over the U.S. - Florida, Texas, South Carolina, California."

As his list goes on and grows, it's a bitterly, blustery cold day in South Jersey. Niles is out of the wind at the edge of a beach in Middle Township, looking through his windshield out at the Delaware Bay.

And professionally speaking, "I can't think of a better place to be than this ... than the Delaware Bay," he says. Later, he adds, "I think the Delaware Bay is the best place in the eastern United States."

He understands there's at least a little irony in those statements, because even many people who live right in its neighborhood don't think there's anything special about this bay.

"The Delaware Bay is sort of the orphan child," Niles says. "All the energy in New Jersey is on the Atlantic Coast, and the Delaware Bay gets not much attention."

But he has worked hard for years to change that. One of his latest efforts is with a book, "Life Along the Delaware Bay - Cape May Gateway to a Million Shorebirds," which he co-wrote with Joanna Burger and Niles' wife, Amanda Dey. The book, published by Rutgers University Press, includes more than 300 color pictures by Jan Van der Kam, a wildlife photographer.

But Niles, 61, and retired from his longtime job as a biologist with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, is so busy with his Delaware Bay projects that he may be the first author in publishing history to forget to bring a copy of his book to an interview. Still, he had plenty to talk about as he showed a bayshore rookie a bit of life on New Jersey's west coast.

For a meeting spot, he picked Reeds Beach, a strip of a few dozen mostly modest homes - some so modest, you can call them trailers - just off the water in Middle Township. Busy Cape May Court House is a few miles to the southeast, but there's no sign of busy out here by the bay.

"This area was devastated in Hurricane Sandy," Niles says, walking just past the last house on the south side of the settlement. "It lost about 2 feet of sand."

And Niles, whose DEP job put him in charge of the agency's Endangered and Non-Game Species Program, explains that Reeds Beach's sand isn't just any sand.

In a few months, horsehoe crabs will come here to crawl ashore, dig down into that sand and lay their eggs. When they do, flocks of red knots - small shorebirds that make an almost-miraculous, annual commute from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic - will fly in to dig out and eat those eggs, and fatten up to try to survive the rest of their 10,000-plus-mile journey to the north.

But Niles points out lines of exposed piling, scattered boulders and concrete blocks, most of which he says were long buried in sand before the storm struck. So his concern is when the horseshoe crabs do come to lay their eggs later this year, they won't have enough sand to do it in.

"Probably 70 percent of their habitat was lost in Sandy," says Niles, who lives north of here, just off the bay in the Cumberland County town of Greenwich - which, he brags, has "three eagles nests surrounding the town." Bald eagles, by the way, were another one of his specialty species in his DEP years.

But back to the hurricane, he calls it "a tragedy for wildlife. ... That's not taking away from the fact Sandy was a tragedy for people too. ... But (the crabs) can't lay now, because they can't dig down."

So one of his pressing projects is working with a group of agencies - federal, state and local - to get emergency beach restoration done on this stretch of bayshore. He's hopeful sand delivery can get to the beach before the crabs and the birds do.

He has been fighting for similar causes for years, almost since he got to the DEP in 1982.

"Larry works with Mandy Dey and others on this, and I believe their leadership is really national and global in scope on red knots," says David Wheeler, the executive director of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, or CWF, an organization that works to protect "imperiled" species that live in or fly through the state.

Wheeler credits Niles with helping spread an understanding of "how vital New Jersey and the Delaware bayshore are to red knots. Without him, we would know a lot less."

Niles actually was a founder of Conserve Wildlife about 15 years ago, when he was still at DEP. He says the state needed an organization with CWF's mission because there was no dedicated, reliable funding source for research and other work on non-game species. By contrast, ducks, deer and other animals that are popular for hunting do generate management money, in the form of the fees hunters pay for their licenses.

"We were trying to raise money, but private foundations and other funding sources won't give money to state agencies," Niles explains.

Niles is now a consultant to the organization he started, with his own "one-man company." And while he can get paid as a consultant when his projects get private funding, he says his Delaware Bay work "is a mix between paid and volunteer."

At the northern tip of Reed's Beach, parked just outside Smokey's Marina, the little town's only visible business, Niles points out just how underused the bayshore is - at least by people. With the cluster of houses here behind him, there is barely any evidence through his windshield of any human activity for miles around.

And that, he now believes, is a mixed blessing.

"It's good that we have all this protected land here, but there's virtually no (human) access ... just barely minimal access" to the bay, he says.

So one thing this conservationist believes would help the bay is a few more marinas and restaurants. After the years he has spent around the bayshore, Niles can think of just one restaurant on the entire New Jersey side of the bay.

"There's almost no tourism infrastructure," he says. And if they can't even see the Delaware Bay, he asks, "How do you expect people to see it as a valuable place?"

At the end of a long talk that touches on many more subjects, Niles drops his passenger off and heads back toward home. And just a few minutes after the veteran takes off, the bayshore rookie gets a glimpse of one reason why this is such a special place.

It's a bald eagle, lazing overhead in the whipping air. The huge bird is flying low, doing circles right over the quiet, empty road through Reed's Beach, one of the the world's best wildlife spots - even if too many people in South Jersey don't know it.

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