Five Questions with a Pine Barrens Educator

Kids wading through a river with seine nets

In this latest installment of our “Five Questions with an Environmentalist” blog series, we’re welcoming Melissa Griffiths Parrott, the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the New York State Pine Barrens Commission.

First, just a quick note: We (the Long Island Pine Barrens Society) are often confused with the New York State Pine Barrens Commission and vice versa – so, we thought we’d clear up some confusion!⁠ The government agency that oversees protection of the largest section of Pine Barrens is the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission.⁠ Created by landmark state legislation, the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993, the Commission is responsible for producing the Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the Central Pine Barrens, holds monthly meetings to consider limited development possibilities and is responsible for stewardship of protected lands.⁠

Our Long Island Pine Barrens Society is a non-profit, whose mission is to advocate for and educate the public on matters of land preservation and drinking water protection, especially in the Pine Barrens.⁠ The Society attends meetings and stays in contact with the Commission to ensure proper adherence to the Land Use Plan and to collaborate on efforts to improve the protection of the Pine Barrens.

Now, let’s learn from Melissa!

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you end up at the Commission?

I like to say Point A to Point B is not necessarily a straight line.

I grew up in Southern California and graduated from California State University, Long Beach with a BA in Radio/TV and Film. (Yep- remember that squiggly line from A to B?). Before I graduated, I studied abroad in London, England and took a gap year to live in Florence, Italy, becoming fluent in Italian.  After graduation, I worked in two fields that I was most passionate about; Natural History and TV/Film.  While I was a production assistant with various producers and studios, I was also a docent educator at my local nature center and the assistant Outreach Coordinator at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

I finally landed the job of my dreams, Post Production Coordinator for ABC/Kane TV.  ABC/Kane is the documentary division of ABC television.  I was able to combine my two passions, of nature and TV and film.  I was in heaven!  After some time working in the film industry, I realized my passion for the natural world was stronger.  I knew I had to follow my stronger feelings, so I left the entertainment industry and dove head first into working in the Environmental Education and Outreach field.  Along the way, I went back to school and trained to gain the knowledge and skill set needed to be the best at what I wanted to be!  After about 20 years as an environmental educator, working as a Director of Education at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, Director of Environmental Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (yes, for the Governor!!), and Director of the Sport Fishing Education Center for Cornell Cooperative Extension along the way, the Education and Outreach Coordinator position with the Central Pine Barrens Commission was recommended to me by a friend.  After some research into the position and the Commission, I thought it would be a great stepping stone for me with the ability to create a brand new Division within the Pine Barrens Commission.  That was in 2007 and I’m still here!

2. What kinds of educational programs does the Commission offer?

What don’t we do! We can certainly tailor any of our programs to fit a variety of needs.  Although we are a Pine Barrens-based Commission, we do provide educational opportunities across our Pine Barrens boundaries, everything is connected, so we teach from a holistic point of view, including all Long Island habitats and ecosystems. 

Our main educational programs include our Barrens to Bay Summer Camp- One of my favorite parts of the year.  We partner with Wertheim Wildlife Refuge and provide 6 weeks of hands-on, fun and creative ecosystem-oriented educational programing at the Wertheim Wildlife Refuge for ages 6 –12.  We explore the  trails, seine the Carmans river, partake in water quality and biodiversity studies, animal tracking, microscope discovery and hands on time with live animals and other specimens.  It. Is. The. Best.

We also co-sponsor with Brookhaven National Lab and NYS Department of Conservation, for our annual A Day in the Life program.  We partner students, teachers and natural resource experts with 11 aquatic ecosystems across Long Island.  It is so much fun!!  We train the teachers, work with the students and partner with the best natural resource experts on the Island.  We also get to travel to some of the most beautiful locations on Long Island, including the Carmans River, Peconic Estuary and Fire Island to do a deep dive into its environmental health!  The students learn real world scientific techniques to test the water quality, inventory biodiversity and more, to become true citizen scientists!  They also connect with their natural world, which is so important for long term conservation.

Every Fall we partner once again with Wertheim Wildlife Refuge to host a Pine Barrens Discovery Day!  A day of learning and experiencing the Pine Barrens.  The entire day is full of “fun shops” tailored to a variety of levels to either be introduced to the Pine Barrens or learn more!  Some of our past presentations include: LIVE Birds of Prey, Marine Life, Native Plants, Sharks and Whales of Long Island, Long Island Bats, American Eels, Forest Rangers, Wildlife Forensics, to namejust a few.  We also have expert Naturalists guide walks along the trails of the Refuge and on the Carmans River.  We seine and dock scrape for some in-depth hands-on aquatic life fun. It’s a GREAT day!

We also provide fun in-class presentations on Pine Barrens Ecology, Long Island Biodiversity and Climate Change on LI (yes, we do try to make that one fun too, or at least end on a positive note).

teacher in a classroom teaching a lesson on the long island pine barrens

Melissa Griffiths Parrott teaching a Pine Barrens Lesson. – Credit: A. Graziano Photography/ Pine Barrens Commission

3. What subject do your students seem most interested in?

Without a doubt wildlife! Hands Down.  It engages every age level with their eternal curiosity and connection to animals, insects included!  There is nothing more exciting than to see a student get excited about nature! I actually believe we are all kids at heart, because honestly, I still get excited about seeing any animal in the wild.  It is such a treat and really a rarity!

4. What is your favorite Pine Barrens park and why is it your favorite?

That is a tough one.  There are a few I connect with.  Wertheim Wildlife Refuge along the Carmans River is my second home.  Whenever I am on the trails or on the river, I am at peace and feel excited to explore. I have experienced so many surprises there when it comes to wildlife.  You just never know what you will see!   I also love the  Dwarf Pine Plains, that happen to be right next to my office (Lucky me!).  This trail, depending on the season has many surprises for you – Including orchids, deer, fox, whippoorwills and the endangered Coastal Barrens Buckmoth in the fall. This trail is rich in what makes the pine barrens the  pine barrens, sandy soil, scrub oak, bearberry, huckleberry, lichens, and the globally rare, dwarf pitch pine tree.  I also love any trail in the Pine Barrens that ends at the Bay or Sound. The Pine Barrens Maritime history is rich!

Aerial photo of the Carmans River Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge

Carmans River – Photo by Julie Clark

5. Do you have any advice for the younger generation or the future stewards of our environment?

Explore.  Ask questions, lots of questions.  Don’t be afraid to do something you’re interested in.  Pick up that stick and check out that scat.  Enjoy your time outside and connect with your surroundings.  Skin your knees, get dirty, experience YOUR LOCAL outdoors.  Sit. Be still and listen.  Observe.  Be patient.  Watch that butterfly or that bird, try to figure out what it is doing. It’s fun!  As far as stewards of our environment; you protect what you love.  It is your future and one day, YOU will be the decision makers that can protect our natural world.   We will need you to do so.