A legacy of land: Conservation leader reflects and looks forward
● By Richard Gaw
It is no doubt ironic, just as it is also very fitting, that the announcement of Gwen Lacy's resignation as the executive director of the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County (TLC) after 14 years – effective April 30 – came at the very same time the TLC acquired 200 more acres of land that will be preserved forever.
In April, TLC acquired a 180-acre property located in Elk Township near the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that will become the conservancy group's sixth nature preserve. The property, formerly owned by the Patricia du Pont Foundation, will support the work of the Foundation’s equine and hound rescue operations. It contains historic ruins and the remnants of Rogers Road, woodlands, meadows, and is traversed by a mile of the Little Elk Creek and its tributaries.
TLC also recently acquired a 20-acre property located in London Britain Township, now known as Fern Hill, that borders the White Clay Creek Preserve and contains a segment of the Middle Branch of the White Clay Creek. It is the first acquisition in a series of properties that TLC is hoping to secure in the township to create a contiguous conservation corridor aligned with the White Clay Creek Preserve.
“It's part of our long-term plan to extend our footprint west and south in the county, and it speaks to Gwen's leadership that we are able to knit together some of the smaller parcels, in order that these new corridors be created,” said TLC board chairman Peter Doehring, TLC board chairman. “If we can continue to find and work with townships south and west of us, we can replicate the great partnership that we have now with Kennett Township, for instance.”
Since beginning as the founding director in 2004 of what was to become TLC, Lacy has been defined by her passion and yes, at times, her dogged determination to facilitate the greening of southern Chester County, and the results are splayed out like a canvas of preservation: 1,248 conserved acres; six public nature preserves; $15 million leveraged for land conservation projects; $4 million earmarked for land purchases and easements; an intricate trail system that serves as an outdoor classroom for the public; and a permanent imprint of vision, education, partnership and acquisition that honors the natural, scenic, historic and agricultural resources.
In addition, Lacy, the TLC board and its staff spearheaded a capital campaign that raised over $1.7 million in cash and in-kind donations to purchase TLC’s new headquarters and create the Chandler Mill Interpretive Center and Nature Preserve. Just beyond the TLC offices lay the historic Chandler Mill Bridge, which the TLC helped protect with the help of Kennett Township – its new owner – who is financing a portion of a rehabilitation project that will reopen the bridge as a bike- and pedestrian crossing, that will serve as a key link in the 12-mile Kennett Greenway.
“This position has been the focus of my life, and the expression of my deepest values, for the past 14 plus years,” Lacy said. “It’s never a good time to leave. There will always be just one more conservation project, one more historic preservation site, one more trail, one more amazing outreach program. However, at this juncture I am confident that, given the caliber of the individuals on the TLC team, I am leaving TLC in the best hands imaginable.
“It has been a privilege to have been a part of TLC from its inception and to have consciously chosen my life’s work, which is both my passion and my purpose.
“We are very grateful for everything Gwen has done,” Doehring said. “We really view Gwen's work here as the creation of a legacy that people in the community will enjoy for years to come. We're excited about what Gwen and the TLC have done, and what they will continue to do.”
“We have a very engaged board that represents a cross section of the community, and over the course of the past year, we've filled some key positions with people who bring to TLC lots of experiences from working with lots of organizations – some from schools and non-profit agencies, for instance, so we're fortunate to be able to pull together a team.”
During the transition process, Doehring said that while the TLC is still focused on its core principles, its top priority remains finding opportunities to purchase land, in a piece-by-piece approach that, over time, grows exponentially.
“Individually, these parcels [the TLC acquires] may not be significant, but when you take them as a whole and add them to the parcels that have already been conserved, it creates a conservation corridor that has the potential to go well beyond a municipality,” he said.
With more land comes the need for more staff to maintain it, Doehring added.
“The landscape of conservation has changed over the years,” he said. “We're no longer at the point where you can run a conservancy with one or two people. You need a team and you need to be organized, and one of the things we wish to expand is in the form of partnerships with other conservancies in the region that we feel we can compliment. And hope that they can draw on what we've learned and accomplished, as well.”
In recent years, the TLC has not just created a foothold on being one of the leading conservation centers in Pennsylvania, but a spawning ground for young conservationists, who have taken on nearly every aspect of TLC operations, from education to grant writing to special events coordination. Preservation Coordinator Abbie Kessler joined TLC in 2015 with a background in archaeology and history. From nearly her first day on the job, she has coordinated easement projects to conserve both natural and historic resources.
“I came in with an understanding of easements form a historical perspective, and under Gwen, I've been able to expand my knowledge,” she said. “I've been able to learn a ton from Gwen, and I will be handling a lot of projects that began with her, like trail projects, acquisitions and easements.
“When Gwen began the TLC in 2004, she was the only employee, and over the past 14 years, she's taken a small land trust group and taken it to where it is now, with a staff of ten and over one thousand acres preserved.
“That's a huge legacy to leave, and it is all because of her.”
Lacy said that each project she and her staff have approached over the past 14 years has been defined by both purpose and people, as seen in collaborations the TLC has cultivated with property owners, appointed and elected leaders in local municipalities, and conservation experts. However, if there is one project that remains the most personal to her, it was the work TLC did to preserve 74-acre Barnard’s Orchards, a fourth generation family farm on Route 842 near Kennett Square.
“Our work at Barnard's Orchards was something that brought the entire community together,” she said. “It supports generations and it is such an integral part of the community. To be able to keep that going meant a lot to me. Coming from a farm family myself, it warmed my heart.”
On a recent vacation in Arizona, Lacy met with landowners about conserving 500 acres in the desert, deemed too little acreage for the larger regional land trust.
“Conservation is in my blood. It's part of my DNA,” said Lacy, who will continue to be associated with TLC through November, and is planning to establish a conservation advocacy LLC in the future. “This transition is in part, to continue to follow my passion and purpose. What I have learned in my time at TLC is all about advocacy – it's about the preservation of the land and creating legacies and preserving quality of life.
“I love the saying, 'Civilizations are lost in groups, but they are regained one on one.' I think that quote bodes well for the future of conservation, because it's all about the one on one process, working with people to preserve land for the benefit of everyone.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.