The State We're In

Conservation Trailblazers: John Stokes, Kathleen Caren and JoAnne Ruscio

Aug 13, 2020

They lived in different parts of New Jersey – John Stokes in Haddonfield, Camden County; Kathleen Caren in West Milford; Passaic County; and JoAnne Ruscio in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County. Their personal and professional paths may never have crossed.

But all three made significant improvements to this state we’re in’s environment.

John, who passed away on July 14 at the age of 70, was the former executive director of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the state agency responsible for protecting over a million acres of ecologically fragile land in the Pine Barrens and trillions of gallons of fresh water lying beneath it in the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer.

Kathleen passed away on July 19 at the age of 64 and was Passaic County’s open space coordinator, a job that entailed helping municipalities and nonprofits succeed with open space acquisition, park and playground improvements, and preservation of farms and historic sites.

JoAnne passed away on April 30 at the age of 68. She was most recently the founder and president of Greener New Jersey Productions, a nonprofit that produced films and videos highlighting the best of New Jersey: preserved farmland, farmers’ markets, parks, nature preserves, open space and historic sites. JoAnne was also a successful executive at New Jersey Network television for many years.

John, Kathleen and JoAnne were remembered fondly by those who worked with them.

Ed Lloyd, a Pinelands Commission member, said John spent most of his career at the Pinelands Commission, starting as Assistant Director working on the region’s comprehensive management plan and eventually rising to executive director.

“He knew everything there was to know and he was innovative – he would find ways to preserve the values of the Pinelands, even when we had to approve development applications,” recalled Ed.

One of John’s innovations was requiring developers whose projects had an adverse impact on the Pine Barrens’ natural resources to mitigate by paying into a conservation fund used to preserve and restore land. “We preserved thousands of acres of land because of that fund,” noted Ed. “John was a key player in making that happen.”

A master at the art of compromise, John felt it was his responsibility to build consensus among the disparate Pinelands Commission members, some of whom had a pro-conservation stance and others of whom were more pro-development. “He was a leader, and that kind of leadership was invaluable.”

“John was a gem and he spent his career protecting the Pinelands,” added Ed. “We’re all lucky to have had him, and we’ll miss him.”

Kathleen, a dedicated environmentalist, began her career in graphic design but found her true calling in administering grants for open space preservation.

“She was the shepherd,” said Passaic County Freeholder Bruce James in an interview with The Record of North Jersey. “She walked the towns and nonprofits through the whole process. Kathleen believed that everyone should be able to enjoy parkland. Everyone should have open space.”

Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist, worked with Kathleen on preserving and stewarding land at the Apshawa Preserve in West Milford, and on other local projects. He admired her for her ability to preserve certain lands for public recreation while protecting others for their wildlife habitats and other natural resources.

“She was a forward-looking public official in that she understood the full spectrum of preserved lands,” recalled Emile. “Often, natural resource protection takes a back seat to recreation. She recognized that certain places had to remain as natural areas.”

Thanks in large part to Kathleen’s efforts, Passaic County has great recreation lands and beautiful natural places!

JoAnne spent most of her career in communications, building public awareness of and support for open space and farmland preservation. After working for many years for the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust and New Jersey Network (the state’s now-defunct public television station), in 2012 she created Greener New Jersey Productions.

“It was a labor of love, really her passion,” said Michael Catania, who served as the nonprofit’s board president for five years.

JoAnne and her team produced many notable films and videos, including “A Race for Time,” which highlighted conservationists’ efforts to restore Delaware Bayshore beaches after Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, in time for the spring migration of shorebirds that depend on feeding stopovers at those beaches. She also produced a series called “Fresh!” about New Jersey’s preserved farms, farmers’ markets and produce.

“She really had an eye for what makes the Garden State special,” recalled Michael. “She was always passionate about telling the story of farms and parks and open space to get more support. She was really talented, but one of those people who liked to shine the spotlight on other people and give them credit.”

Thank you to John, Kathleen and JoAnne for being true conservation trailblazers! May your actions and your dedication serve as an inspiration for others to work on behalf of New Jersey’s environment and preserved lands.

For more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

About the Authors

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director, 2022-2023

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.


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