With his white beard, well-used sun hat and easy-going manner, Roger Shew appears to be just what he is – a guy who loves and is at home in nature. He is also a senior lecturer in the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s ocean sciences and environmental sciences department and one of the area’s leading advocates for conservation.
But Shew isn’t an all-or-nothing conservationist. He also sees the need for, and supports, planned development.
“I try to be a realist,” Shew said. “I’m not a person who said absolutely no or never to development or industry. We have to have that. At the same time, when doing development in New Hanover County or Brunswick County we have to have planned growth and growth that supports not just a few with development but the many.”
Preserving the region’s ecosystem in the midst of rapid development just makes sense, according to Shew. First, being in nature promotes better mental health. Second, the coastal region’s natural beauty is one of the reasons that people want to live here, he said.
Therefore, conservation should be an integral part of all development, from commercial sites to housing developments, Shew said. For example, instead of clear-cutting, developers should keep the majestic trees that grace the area; stormwater control measures should be part of all development plans; and the area’s large ecosystems should be kept intact, Shew recommended.
The benefits of doing so aren’t just aesthetic, Shew said. Keeping mature natural growth in our communities enhances property values, according to Shew.
“We need planned development and to take a comprehensive look at our county,” Shew said. “We need to take a step back and see what is going on and not postage stamp development without a master plan in place.”
Shew, who is a native of Brunswick County, brings a background in industry and academia to his advocacy. He worked as a geologist for Shell Oil Co. for 10 years before joining the teaching staff at UNCW. There he is known for intriguing, constantly changing classes and the many field trips he takes his students on.
It was from his work as an educator, and all those field trips, that Shew got the idea for his documentary, Shew’s Natural Treasures. The film, which Shew produced with the assistance of Jesse Bradley, UNCW’s director of media productions, and other colleagues in the conservation field, features the region’s “seven natural wonders”: the Carolina Bays, Cape Fear River and Black River, old-growth cypress trees, saltwater marshes, carnivorous plants, longleaf pine savannas and barrier islands.
“My hope is that by showing community groups, students and political leaders how beautiful these areas are and by highlighting their economic benefits, we will join together to preserve them,” Shew said.
Thus far, the documentary has been well received – it was standing-room-only at the film’s premiere in April. Bradley hopes to distribute it to other outlets such as PBS North Carolina in the future.
In addition, Shew plans to turn the film into a tool for educators. He is breaking the documentary into 12-minute modules and creating accompanying materials that history, natural history and biology teachers can use with their classes.
Shew said he hopes the films will spark the interest of students, who will then visit the areas shown in the film and share with their parents how valuable they are.
“The idea that we need to preserve these areas for people coming to the region or for those already here will advance through the generations,” Rogers said.
Shew, who is a member of the Eagles Island Task Force, is also working to protect Eagles Island from commercial or housing development. Eagles Island is the approximately 3,100 acres between the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers. It’s recognizable to many as the home of the Battleship North Carolina.
While the Army Corps of Engineers uses about 1,500 acres of the land to store dredge spoil material from the Cape Fear River, the remaining 1,600 acres are undeveloped and are owned by both private and government entities.
Although plans are currently stalled, three years ago private entities bought part of that land and proposed putting mixed-use housing or a hotel and spa on it.
Such development would endanger the land’s extensive network of flora and fauna, Shew said. It would also be difficult to manage, he added. The land in question, which is a low-lying wetland, already floods during high tides.
Instead, Shew recommended turning that parcel of land into a nature center that features walking and biking trails, kayak trails, and boardwalks. It would also include a small, raised education center at which visitors could learn about the region’s maritime history, naval stores and Gullah Geechee rice culture.
“We could run ferries across the river,” Shew said. “People could spend the day doing ecotourism and visiting the battleship, then going back across the river to eat at a local restaurant and spend the night in a motel. Those are economic opportunities.”
Shew said representatives of New Hanover and Brunswick counties, state agencies and landowners need to discuss which option benefits everyone. If the answer is the nature center, funds would need to be found to buy the private investors’ land and build the center.
Shew said he is steadily working to make the nature center a reality despite the obstacles. He recently gave a presentation on the proposal to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, and he shares information with other groups upon request.
“It’s a big job, but most things associated with nature or development are,” Shew said. “It’s a lot to ask from folks. I understand property rights. I also understand what makes no sense from the science. My goal is to make a proposal for the best use of the land and minimize risk. If we get everyone on board, then we can determine how we can do something on the island.”
The documentary and Eagles Island efforts have put Shew in the spotlight, but he is just as likely to be found toiling behind the scenes. Shew volunteers with several conservation organizations, including Cape Fear River Watch, The Nature Conservatory, N.C. Coastal Federation and the New Hanover County Soil & Water Conservation District. He also serves as a liaison between the Environmental Protection Agency and Navassa regarding its superfund site.
But it’s Shew’s role as an educator that he most enjoys, he said. He is a speaker on a range of topics for professional and community groups.
When he isn’t giving presentations, Shew is back in his natural element – giving tours to groups as varied as the Southport NatureFest, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and other community and education groups.
“I love teaching, and I love to bring the importance of and the economic benefits of the natural world to folks,” he said.
Serving as the guardian of thoughtful environmental conservation and thoughtful development is a never-ending job that is fraught with setbacks, but Shew said he keeps going.
“The only time I get discouraged is when I can’t get the opportunity to talk to someone,” Shew said. “But I never get discouraged enough that I don’t keep trying. I’m pretty optimistic, so I do what I can. At the end of the day, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You just have to keep trying.”