LOWER TOWNSHIP — Get outside.

That was one message delivered Friday by Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy, who came here to promote President Barack Obama’s Great Outdoors initiative.

“We need to reconnect, especially our youth, with American land, rivers, lakes and coastal areas,” said Darcy, speaking at the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park.

But Darcy had another reason for coming. She presented, on behalf of the Obama Administration and other federal agencies, what she called the administration’s most prestigious environmental award, the 2010 Coastal America Partnership Award, to the entities that restored Lower Cape May Meadows.

The 350-acre beach and wetlands area between Cape May and Cape May Point is a key freshwater ecosystem for migrating birds including raptors, songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. For decades it suffered from coastal erosion that caused saltwater to degrade the wetlands and sour the freshwater habitat the birds relied on. In the 1950s the ocean was taking about 15 feet a year from the 1.3-mile long beach.

A project that began in 1987 has restored the degraded wetlands and replenished beaches to prevent saltwater from coming in. Specific habitat has been constructed for species such as the piping plover. The work is expected to cost $75 million over a half-century.

Beach projects were historically limited to saving expensive shorefront real estate, but a 1991 directive issued by President George H. W. Bush allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use beach replenishment to save natural areas as well. It also got support from President Bill Clinton, who opposed using federal dollars for recreational beaches but supported environmental projects. This was the first ecosystem project nationally to qualify for funding.

The award went to the groups that teamed to save the Lower Cape May Meadows, including the Army Corps, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cape May Point borough and The Nature Conservancy. Studies began in 1987 but most of the work was done from 2004 to 2007. There have been two beach replenishment projects since then to protect what was done.

The Nature Conservancy owns 212 acres of the 350 acres that were restored, including the area that once held South Cape May, a town destroyed by coastal erosion.

Khara McKeen of The Nature Conservancy credited the project with increasing storm protection for residents in neighboring towns, enhancing wetlands that are globally important to migratory birds and improving habitat for a number of endangered species.

Darcy presented plaques to each group involved in the project. Special recognition went to Cape May Point Mayor Carl Schupp, former Mayor Malcolm Fraser and borough Administrator Connie Mahon for their roles.

“Without the hard work of Malcolm and Carl this wouldn’t be happening today. Connie has been a tireless supporter. No task is too large or too small for Connie,” said Virginia Tippie, director of the group Coastal America Partnership.

The partnership was set up 20 years ago, Tippie explained, to protect, preserve and restore America’s coastal ecosystems. It is made up of 16 federal agencies.

Government conservation agencies have been accused of acquiring land but not managing it. The project proved major improvements can be made. “It’s an example of excellent stewardship of lands entrusted to us,” said Assistant DEP Commissioner Amy Cradic.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711