The State We're In

Wetlands champion: Russell Furnari

May 13, 2021

Wetlands are one of the most valuable, and least understood, of our natural resources. Wetlands clean and replenish water supplies, reduce flood risk by soaking up stormwater, provide rich wildlife habitat, and offer incredible beauty and recreational opportunities.

May is American Wetlands Month, a time to celebrate their many benefits and to thank those who work tirelessly to protect and restore them.

One of New Jersey’s most steadfast wetlands champions is Russell Furnari, who was just chosen for a 2021 National Wetlands Award by the Environmental Law Institute. Russ is the longtime chair of an innovative group known as the NJ Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, and the Manager Environmental Policy Enterprise for PSEG.

National Wetlands Awards are presented annually to individuals who have excelled in wetlands protection, restoration, and education. Russ’ award was given in the corporate leadership category.

A Newark native who still lives in Essex County, Russ said he was “humbled” just to be nominated. “That I got selected for the award is unbelievable,” he said.

But those who work alongside Russ to restore wetlands and protect rare wildlife aren’t surprised.

“He’s a renaissance man, a rare bird,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist and manager of science. “He’s very knowledgeable and involved in the environment, and also the arts, sports, the Essex County community and mentoring young people. He volunteers for everything.”

The Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership was established under the guidance of PSEG in 2003 and Russ has been at its helm since 2006. It is a public-private initiative working to restore, preserve, enhance and protect aquatic habitats throughout this state we’re in.

It’s also unique to New Jersey. At one time, several other states had active Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership chapters, but over the years the other groups disbanded as corporate leaders retired or moved on to other jobs.  “Unfortunately, the only chapter left at the moment is New Jersey,” said Russ.

Members in New Jersey include corporations, federal and state agencies, small businesses, nonprofit conservation organizations, professional groups and educational institutions. Annual dues help fund projects throughout the state to benefit wetlands.

One of Russ’ outstanding leadership skills is his ability to bring together members with diverse – and sometimes conflicting – priorities; and to keep the group together and growing. “Russ is really good at getting people involved and getting them interested and excited,” noted Emile. “He’s so personable, everybody likes him and trusts him and wants to join up.”

Russ describes himself as “a builder” of consensus. “The goal is to get things done,” he said.

Under Russ’ leadership, the group has supported dozens of wetlands projects. Some recent or ongoing projects funded by the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership include:

  • Work by The Musconetcong Watershed Association and its partners to remove three dams from the Musconetcong River in Hunterdon, Morris and Warren counties. The dam removals opened about five miles of river to migratory fish, as well as resident fish such as brook trout. A fourth dam removal is planned.
  • A project by Little Egg Harbor Township and Tuckerton Borough to restore and strengthen their marshes and provide a buffer against continued flooding.  A nature-based resiliency project was implemented in two vulnerable sections of the towns. “It’s a model,” says Russ. “It was done to show that you can do these things – you can scale it up and it works.”
  • The establishment of a “Discover the Delaware Watershed” youth engagement program for middle and high school grades through in-class and on-water experiences on the Cooper River and Delaware River Back Channel, and through conservation service projects in the City of Camden, Camden County and Philadelphia. This project will be based on leading research for integrating environmental education into formal education, and will provide significant life experiences on nearby waterways.
  • A project by the Wetlands Institute in Cape May County to create a sandy nesting habitat for diamondback terrapins and develop and test a prototype barrier solution to protect turtles from roadways.

One of Russ’ favorite projects was the restoration of abandoned cranberry bogs to natural wetlands at the Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pine Barrens. “That’s when I learned that cranberry bogs are engineered, not natural,” he said, explaining that man-made structures are used in cranberry farming to raise and lower water levels.

Part of the project involved planting thousands of Atlantic white cedar seedlings in the newly-restored wetlands in 2008. Russ not only helped fund the project; he was also brought in volunteers from upper-level leadership positions at PSEG. The seedlings are now about 12 feet tall, with the potential to grow to up to 75 feet.

Russ said he’s looking forward to driving to the Pine Barrens soon to visit the Atlantic white cedar forest. “I’d say, ‘See that forest? That’s my forest. I planted it.’ “

Russ also “walks the walk” in his personal life. At his home, he maintains a rain garden, a remarkable suburban island of pollinator diversity. His front-yard is so akin to natural meadow habitat that it attracts monarchs and other uncommon migratory butterflies.

Congratulations to Russ! He sets a high bar for wetlands and environmental protection, both in his profession and as a private citizen.

To learn more about the 2021 National Wetlands Awards, go to http://elinwa.org/2021-national-wetlands-awards-winners.

To see a full list of NJ Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership projects, go to http://www.njcwrp.org/.

And for information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including wetlands – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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About the Author

michelle_author

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director

Michele joined New Jersey Conservation in 1982 as coordinator of our advocacy efforts in the Pine Barrens. In 1999 Michele became Executive Director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. View her full bio here.

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