photo of Elizabeth Meirs Morgan

Pine Baroness: Using botany and history to preserve land

In the 1930s, Elizabeth Meirs's Bryn Mawr classmates called her "The Pioneer Woman." Today, her neighbors in southern New Jersey's Pine Barrens have nicknamed her "The Pine Baroness."

The naming theme is the outdoors, for which Elizabeth Meirs Morgan '35, botanist and historian, has fought since the 1960s. She lives near the Pine Barrens, 35 miles from the town of New Egypt, where she grew up, "in a place you wouldn't believe, like the back of beyond. There are no houses and sand roads, some that are passable and some that aren't."

In environmental circles, Morgan is known for her knowledge of indigenous plant life-her ammunition against land developers whose proposed buildings would destroy habitats, endangered plants and the scenery. She insists that her style is subtle: "I'm not a fighter in the sense that I don't go out and get 'em," says Morgan. "I'm a behind-the-scenes wheeler-and-dealer." When she hears of plans to develop land in a way she deems "not suitable," she researches the plant life, lore and history of the area, then supplies that research to nonprofit groups, such as the Nature Conservancy or the Audubon Society, who then argue her case. "I've won in many instances," she says. "You just have to persist and persist."

Her most recent success was to help save the New York Lighthouse Camp for the Blind, a 95-acre camp on Barnegat Bay, which closed three years ago for financial reasons. The Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife acquired the camp this past summer. A non-profit group is leasing 27 buildings, supplied "with everything from sheets to sailboats." The camp will be used as an environmental education center handy to Barnegat Inlet, Island Beach State Park, Barnegat Bay, marshes and the Pine Barrens, says Morgan. "There's an awful lot going on there."

Currently, Morgan is looking into ways to preserve 20,000 acres-the largest roadless piece of land left in the state-for study. "We have a long way to go still," she says.Morgan has received two Gaea Awards, an Environmental Education Award from the New Jersey Audubon Society, the 1995 Historian of the Year Award from the League of New Jersey Historical Societies, and the Encore Award from the South Jersey Cultural Alliance. The Wells Mills County Park dedicated its observation tower to her and ensconced her portrait on the top deck, overlooking the area she was instrumental in saving from developers. The New York Times in the fall of 1999 called her "a living legend."

Forty years ago, battling city hall was "a lot simpler," says Morgan. "John McPhee's book The Pine Barrens came out and gave 'Pineys' a new lease on life. Now, it takes a lot more work by a lot of different people, not just me. Sometimes I'm just flat out with exhaustion."

Morgan has always loved the outdoors. She was late for the first day of first grade because she was watching butterflies in the school yard. "I always noticed what was around me," she says. Her aunts owned a 311-acre farm in New Jersey: "When I visited they would show me all kinds of botanical treasures. The history I got from my father."

She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in history from Bryn Mawr. But her favorite subject was geology, which she preferred over chemistry because it was "too stinky: I wasn't meant to measure in tiny little bits. I almost blew up a friend in lab." Geology allowed her to roam and observe. She often took long walks after classes with Dean Helen Taft Manning '15, who was "loads of fun," and her dogs. On the geology field trip in Bethlehem PA, Morgan "almost got killed by a truck because I was on the side of the road, pounding out a trilobite. Somebody yanked me out of the way at the last minute. That helped, I would say, because I didn't die."

Morgan taught for three years at Ogontz School for Girls, then married and raised a family. She has written two books of church history for Christ Episcopal Church as well as articles on local lore and plants for various clubs and organizations.

Her true passions remain botany and history-and teaching others about them. "My favorite thing is taking people on field trips," she says. "At heart, I am an environmental educator."

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