OCEAN TOWNSHIP — When Candace McKee Ashmun first visited Forked River Mountain, she was looking for an actual mountain.
"I'm an Oregonian. When I hear ‘mountain,' I expect to see a mountain. Or at least a hill of some sort," said Ashmun, 86, who now lives in Bernards Township, Somerset County.
But on Saturday afternoon, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation named the relatively flat "mountain," and the 4,000-acre preserve that it is part of, after Ashmun.
Ashmun is the acting chairwoman of the state Pinelands Commission and is the only original member of the commission who is still active. She also is the founding member of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions and the State Planning Commission.
"She's the woman with the whip who gets things done," joked Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, of which Ashmun also is a longtime volunteer. "But seriously, she is probably the most staunch and dedicated conservation leader in the history of New Jersey. And she brings an enormous amount of energy and knowledge to dealing with the important land preservation issues we face here."
Byers said officials have wanted to dedicate a preserve to Ashmun for years but did not have the "right" property until the last 700 acres of the preserve at Forked River Mountain — which extends from Wells Mills Park to Lacey Township — were obtained last year.
"This is one of the few remaining wilderness areas in New Jersey, meaning it's not crossed with paved roads and there are no landmarks to guide you. And this is huge considering that we're in New Jersey - the most densely populated state in the union," Byers said. "So it really is fitting that we name it after Candy."
The land also is home to many rare and threatened plants and animals, such as the Pine Barrens gentian and the Pine Barrens tree frog.
Ashmun, who graduated from Smith College in 1946 with a degree in physics, said she had no choice in becoming an environmentalist.
"If you came from Oregon, you're going to be involved in the environment," she said.
The grandmother of eight also joked that she had no choice in joining the Pinelands Commission, of which she has been a member since 1979.
"I got a call one day, and they said, ‘We need a female and an environmentalist, and you're it,'" she said.
But with family and friends by her side, many of whom traveled from out of state to share the moment with her, Ashmun expressed what the dedication really meant to her.
"Of all of the things one would want, having acres preserved in their name is the best," she said. "And when you think of how sensitive this particular area is, given the ecology and that the Forked River is right here, this is very exciting. Very exciting."
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