To save Masonboro Island, this group is taking a whole generation to experience what it offers

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Masonboro.org's ILX program takes about 120 students at a time to Masonboro Island to teach them about conservation. Eventually, the group plans to take every student in the county. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTO / Masonboro.org)
Masonboro.org’s ILX program takes about 120 fifth-graders at a time to Masonboro Island to teach them about conservation. Eventually, the group plans to take every student in the county. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Against the constant drumbeat of construction and expansion in the area, Masonboro Island is a distinct counterpoint: undeveloped, uninhabited and untouched. But not, as many locals know, unthreatened.

Tom Hackler, who serves on the board of Masonboro.org, told Port City Daily his organization has spent the better part of the last decade trying to keep the pristine quarter-square-mile island the way it is.  

The organization, founded by Richard Johnson and Jack Kilbourne in 2009, came out of local efforts to keep the island clean.

“We were really just a group of friends, surfers, kayakers, boaters, who all knew each other,” Hackler said. “It really started one year after the Fourth of July, when a bunch of us went out to the island to pick up the trash from the night before. We were a little afraid it would send the wrong message, that people would just think we were the trash guys.”

Hackler and other members of the waterfront community started Masonboro.org as a non-profit dedicated to protecting Masonboro; but the threat wasn’t development. Accessible only by boat, and protected as part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, Masonboro won’t be the site of any flashy beach hotels or high-priced condos in the foreseeable future. But it is popular destination for campers – and partiers.

“It’s uninhabited and, except for the occasional visit by the Coast Guard, it’s got a touch of the wild west,” Hackler said. “That’s what makes it so beautiful out there, but … it can be abused pretty easily. People go out there, just for an afternoon, but they can leave a lot of trash behind. You can do a lot of damage in an afternoon if you don’t really care about the ecosystem.”

A long-term plan to protect the Masonboro environment

According to Tom Hackler of Masonboro.org, working with blue crabs is a highlight for students. 'That's where they get really involved,' Hackler said. 'When they see the life on the island, it literally comes alive for them.' (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)
According to Tom Hackler of Masonboro.org, working with blue crabs is a highlight for students. ‘That’s where they get really involved,’ Hackler said. ‘When they see the life on the island, it literally comes alive for them.’ (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)

Members from Masonboro.org still go out on their own to clean up the island, but the group came up with a long-range approach.

Hackler and other members came to the conclusion that the island is not really a tourist destination; few people outside the area know the island is even there, and many visitors to the area don’t bring a boat to get there.

“It’s locals going out there, and so we thought we could reach the locals, and teach them to be invested in the resource that Masonboro really is,” Hackler said. “Instead of picking up after them when they’re 20, we thought we could educate them when they’re 12.”

In 2012, Masonboro.org got together volunteers who took the fifth grade from Wrightsville Elementary School for a day trip to the island. The trip went well, Hackler said; volunteers and students alike had a good time. The next year they took out 300 kids. According to Hackler, that’s when things started getting serious. This was the beginning of their ILX program.

“We were getting great feedback, and we wanted to keep growing the program. But, you know, you’re taking 300 kids out on the water, there are some pretty serious liability issues.” Hackler said. “We had to get insured, we had to get a handle of the logistics.”

Volunteers from New Hanover County Schools chaperone the students; educational service are provided by volunteers from Carolina Ocean Studies. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)
Volunteers from New Hanover County Schools chaperone the students; educational service are provided by volunteers from Carolina Ocean Studies. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)

By the third year, Masonboro.org had raised enough money to take 600 students to the island, the following year it was nearly 1,600. Last year, the organization applied for and received a $35,000 grant from Duke Energy to continue building the program.

“At that point, our goal started to look possible,” Hackler said. “At that point we said, ‘we really could take every fifth grader in the county to the island.”

The (entire) next generation of New Hanover County

This year, Hackler said volunteers are aiming to do just that. The group has applied for another grant, this time for twice as much — $70,000 – from Duke.  Hackler is confident Masonboro.org will raise the money, which goes largely to the cost of renting large day-cruise boats in Carolina Beach to ferry the students to Masonboro Island.

At the beginning of June, the organization will hold its annual fundraiser, which Hackler expects to cover any shortfall between a Duke grant and the total cost.

It’s a lot of money and a lot volunteer time – most Masonboro.org volunteers donate about 150 hours every year – but the end goal is crucial, Hackler said.

“We’re trying to protect the island, to make this students better stewards of the environment when they grow up,” Hackler said. “But we’re also introducing a lot of students to the ecological resources they don’t know they have. We’re going countywide with this, and we’ve seen a lot of underprivileged students who have no idea all this – Masonboro, the estuary, the beaches – is right in their backyard.”

Students have the island to themselves; Tom Hackler of Masonboro.org hopes the experience will stay with them for a lifetime. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTOS / Masonboro.org)
Students have the island to themselves; Tom Hackler of Masonboro.org hopes the experience will stay with them for a lifetime. (Port City Daily photos/COURTESY MASONBORO.ORG)

The educational services provided en route and on the island come from volunteers. Richard Cecelski, director of Carolina Ocean Study, has been providing volunteer educators for several years.

Supervision comes from other volunteers, from Masonboro.org, schools and parents.

Hackler said if the program can sustainably manage taking every fifth grader to the island – in effect, taking an entire generation of New Hanover County over the next 10 years – it will have proved its worth. Then, Hackler said, the goal is to turn it over to the county school system.

“That’s our hope, anyway,” Hackler said. “We’ll essentially have it up and running. We hope the importance of the program is clear and the county will take it over and make this an institution.”

Learn more: get information about the program or Masonboro Island or about Masonboro.org’s spring benefit party on June 1, 2017.