Skip to main content

Standing with nature

05/16/2017 10:55AM ● Published by J. Chambless

(Photo by Jarrod Shull) A double rainbow at Stroud Preserve.

Gallery: Natural Lands Trust [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

If you want to understand the importance of Natural Lands Trust, consider this statistic: More than 2.5 million people live within five miles of lands in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey that are protected by Natural Lands Trust.

With roots that stretch back to 1953, Natural Lands Trust is the oldest and largest land conservation organization in the area, protecting the forests, fields, streams, and wetlands that are essential to the sustainability of life in this part of the country. It manages 43 nature preserves, totaling more than 22,000 acres, including Stroud Preserve in West Chester, Binky Lee Preserve in Chester Springs, Peacedale Preserve in Landenberg, and ChesLen Preserve in Coatesville.

The statistics—43 preserves, 2.5 million people, 22,000 acres—tell a part of the story, sure. But the real work of Natural Lands Trust is providing people—starting with those 2.5 million men and women who live within five miles of the protected lands—the chance to form a personal and emotional connection to the natural world. Natural Lands Trust stands with nature—always.

The seeds for Natural Lands Trust were planted in 1953 when a group called the Philadelphia Conservationists, comprised of avid bird watchers, came together to protect the marshes at Tinicum along the Delaware River. The land is now the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. That success started Natural Lands Trust on the path to becoming a leader in the private land conservation movement.

The non-profit organization utilizes a comprehensive approach to conservation that includes permanently protecting natural areas, providing leadership to communities in resource management, and creating opportunities for people to connect and to learn from nature.

The work can be challenging and slow, but the results are very rewarding.

Consider Stroud Preserve off North Creek Road in West Chester, a 571-acre mosaic of grasslands, working farmlands, and woodlands that serves as a unique site not just for recreation, but for education and scientific research.

“Stroud is a beautiful property. It’s one of the most popular preserves,” explained Kirsten Werner, the director of communications with Natural Lands Trust.

Stroud Preserve is an example of how the Natural Lands Trust can serve as a leader and a facilitator for land conservation—but the work is never done in isolation.

Stroud Preserve was established in 1990 when Dr. Morris Stroud bequeathed his 332-acre farm to Natural Lands Trust. The Preserve has grown in size since then through other land donations and purchases of neighboring properties.

The 571-acre preserve is both culturally and ecologically significant. Its history reaches back as far as the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania. A stone farmhouse was built by Thomas Worth around 1740. The farmhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dr. Stroud stipulated that the preserve be available as a long-term study site for the Stroud Water Research Center, which is world renowned for its pioneering research on streams and rivers. Scientists from the research center have set up experiments on the preserve to evaluate how to create riparian forest buffers and how they can filter out sediments, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other harmful chemicals that can be a threat to other waters that are downstream. Stroud Preserve has been part of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Monitoring Program, a network of sites established across the U.S. to evaluate how land use and human practices affect water quality. It is the only such site in Pennsylvania.

Stroud Preserve's land is also being used to create meadows, wetlands, and woodlands so that native plants and animals can thrive. Natural Lands Trust staff oversees this work. Today, one-third of the people who work for Natural Lands Trust are involved directly in the care of the lands in the various nature preserves to make sure that they are suitable places for nature to flourish, and that they are safe and enjoyable places for the public to visit.

According to Werner, the overarching mission of Natural Lands Trust is always to connect people to the outdoors. The purpose of preserving precious natural resources is to improve the quality of life for people. Eighteen of the preserves managed by Natural Lands Trust are open to the public every day of the year.

“They are completely free and they are open dawn to dusk,” Werner explained.

While one-third of Natural Lands Trust staff works directly in the care of the lands, another one-third works with municipal leaders to develop good zoning regulations that protect the farmland and open space that remains available.

“We always think about those vulnerable properties in the communities before they are being developed,” Werner explained.

One of those vulnerable properties was what is today known as ChesLen Preserve near Coatesville. Werner noted that the ChesLen Preserve could have had close to 600 homes built there. But the property's owners, philanthropists Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, were willing to donate their land, as was the county, which owned an adjacent 500 acres. Now, the 1,262-acre property spans three different municipalities and is one of the largest private nature preserves in southeastern Pennsylvania. It features more than 13 miles of hiking trails and equestrian trails, too.

Another example of how Natural Lands Trust can work to protect farmland that is threatened by development pressures is the Bryn Coed Farms in northern Chester County. Located primarily in West Vincent Township, with portions in East Pikeland and West Pikeland townships, the Bryn Coed Farms property stretches out over 1,505 acres, making it one of the largest remaining undeveloped, unprotected tracts of land in the greater Philadelphia region. Under current zoning regulations, it could be developed and approximately 700 homes could be built on the land.

But Natural Lands Trust announced in the latter part of 2016 that it was close to securing the preservation of the Bryn Coed Farms by reaching an agreement of sale for the property with the owners, the Dietrich family. Three Dietrich brothers, heirs to the Luden's cough drop company, acquired adjoining farms in the 1970s to assemble the property. The brothers decided in 2003 to sell the property, and various conservation and development options have been explored ever sense. Natural Lands Trust has been involved in this effort to conserve the land for five or six years, and Werner said that they are hoping to close on the property during 2017. If the Bryn Coed Farms property can be preserved, it would be the largest land conservation success in the five-county region surrounding Philadelphia.

Preserving a property like Bryn Coed Farms is always complicated. One of the biggest challenges, of course, is lining up the funding that is necessary.

“We have to find the money for all these projects,” Werner said, explaining that the organization utilizes private donations; member donations; grants from townships, counties, and the state; and other sources to fund projects.

“Land conservation takes place over decades,” Werner said of the process. “Natural Lands Trust is in the perpetuity business.”

Each land conservation project is unique in its challenges and opportunities.

In the case of the Bryn Coed Farms project, 400 to 500 acres of land will be put in a preserve that will be owned and managed by the Natural Lands Trust. Other sections of the property will be divided into large conservation properties, preserved by conservation easements, and sold to private individuals.

The size of the nature preserve they create depends on the amount of funding that can be raised by Natural Land Trust. A fundraising campaign is underway to secure the $5 million needed to save the entire property. Donations can be made at bryncoedfarms.org/give.

Werner commended the Chester County government's leadership and support for land conservation.

“Chester County has been a leader in terms of conservation,” Werner said. “It’s really part of the county's DNA to protect open space and the rural feel of its communities.”

Werner said that it helps when people are more aware of the open space around them, and tuned in to the importance of having that open space protected. Which is why the organization opens so much of its land to the public, so that people can reconnect with nature and appreciate the value of open space.

Werner extended an invitation to anyone who wants to get out in nature and enjoy what the preserves have to offer. Details about the preserves can be found at www.natlands.org/preserves.

For people who wants to hike at the preserves, there is a “Find Yourself Outside Challenge where people can earn a free fleece vest by visiting all 18 publicly accessible preserves. More details can be found at www.natlands.org/findyourselfoutside.

Special events are planned at various locations throughout the spring and summer, including several live music events. Field Jam will take place at the Gwynned Wildlife Preserve in Ambler, Pa. on Saturday, June 24 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Enjoy a Friday Night Lights program at the ChesLen Preserve on Friday, July 14 from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Beats and Brews will take place on Saturday, Sept. 9 from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Binky Lee Preserve in Chester Springs.

Natural Lands Trust also has a Roots & Bluestems event planned for the Stroud Preserve on Sept. 16 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event will include roots music, food trucks, and craft beers. More details about all the events are available on the Natural Lands Trust website.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline

West Chester & Chadds Ford Life, Today
Chester County High School Sports