On this snowy day, I am spending the opportunity to reflect on the past year of hard-earned successes of the Land Team at Berks Nature and foreshadow some of the future triumphs the next 12 months will bring.
Kim Murphy and Larry Lloyd on a visit to the Dent-Gundry Preserve, a property newly acquired in 2023.
It has been nearly a year since I commenced on this journey and there are many momentous achievements to remember. Perhaps the earliest from 2023 is the acquisition of our newest preserve, the over 300-acre Dent-Gundry property. While it will remain closed to the public, it offers a mix of crop lands, dense deciduous forest, and a critical riparian zone along the beautiful Saucony Creek, which will serve as a research and best management practice demonstration site for conservation.
During March, we officially opened the trails of the Ephraim Malickson Wildlife Sanctuary, an over 200-acre preserve located in the Indian Corn Creek Basin (a tributary to the Schuylkill River near Birdsboro).
The Malickson Sanctuary is a terrific upland to visit and walk; its carefully placed trails guiding visitors through mature hardwoods and a strong understory. A hike there today and during snowy winter months to come would reveal the many tracks and daily activities of the forest creatures who live there.
During 2023, the Land Team conserved five great properties most certainly due to the long-term efforts of Larry Lloyd, our Senior Ecologist. These include two in the Oley Hills – the Traylor and Wright properties – which together total approximately 252 acres of beautiful woodland. The Coyle property gained a 13-acre amendment, adding to an existing easement in the Hopewell Big Woods geography in southern Berks County.
Two additional properties, including J.A.M. Farms and the Reiley Irrevocable Trust, conserved an additional 206 acres in southern Schuylkill County along the Kittatinny Ridge landscape, a geography nationally recognized as a critically important avian migration route, critical avian habitat and the source water for many people relying on the Schuylkill River and Susquehanna River.
We have an ever-present challenge in front of us. That is to conserve and preserve as much undeveloped land from development as possible.
The national moniker “30×30” has been bestowed upon us. That is, the protection of 30% of the national land mass (and ocean) by 2030 lest we suffer the dire consequence of global warming and all that is predicted for land and world oceans.
To quantify the protected lands of Berks County to date, conservation organizations including Berks Nature, the Berks County Department of Agriculture and other municipal and Federal organizations, we are currently somewhere close to 25% of Berks County land preserved. We have much work to do! But due to Berks Nature’s 50-year commitment to conservation and land stewardship, we have a strong list of land owners who are interested in conserving their land in 2024 and add generously to the nearly 10,014 acres currently eased by Berks nature.
During 2023, with the help of many volunteers, we planted 1,090 native trees and shrubs in Berks and Lebanon Counties. Trees and shrubs are critical to the health of our planet and ourselves. Our planting included best management practice (BMP) efforts to restore riparian zones at numerous properties; some private and some public. Trees, shrubs and riparian zone restoration projects offer equity and critical protection to our soil and water resources.
For 2024, we have strong financial support and detailed plans for the spring and fall planting seasons. Through regular planning initiatives and reliable philanthropy, our planting efforts will grow in 2024, increasing our positive impact on land conservation and water resources.
Tree planting at the Charming Forge easement in fall 2023.
Other BMP projects were a success during 2023. The Land Team worked with several farms to initiate manure storage changes and install fencing to prohibit pastured animals’ access to stream channels, which limits the degradation of our waterways. During 2023, two property owners were awarded funding from the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund (SRRF) for agricultural BMP improvements including $95,000 for the Phillips property and $75,000 for the Burkholder property. As we enter the Spring 2024 grant cycle, many new projects are being considered for funding from SRRF.
Our Trails and Preserves Specialist, Jeremy Haymaker has had a busy 2023 as well! In addition to creating and stewarding our the public trails of Berks Nature’s preserves, he also made significant progress on the extension of the Angelica Creek Trail.
With the help of many volunteers and leveraged funds from a Schuylkill Highlands Mini-grant, Jeremy built several bridges to protect sensitive habitats on the ever-popular Neversink Mountain Preserve. One can enjoy Jeremy’s vision and ability to create trails at several of our preserves including the Malickson Sanctuary. He is excited to plan a new trail this year at the Ontelaunee Wetland Preserve which will provide greater access to enjoy the Preserve’s important riparian zone along the Schuylkill River.
Throughout the past year, our Land Team has expanded to better serve the conservation needs of Berks County and beyond. We celebrate the addition of two new staff members, Brooke Leister and Ryan Brett. They joined Larry Lloyd, Jeremy Haymaker and me, to provide much needed help with land stewardship, easement monitoring and outreach throughout Berks County and southern Schuylkill County. With their hard work, we will increase our outreach and conservation activities to fulfill our mission of conserving our precious land and to as Larry says, “demonstrate the conservation in conservation easement”.
Brooke and Ryan are an integral part of introducing Berks Nature to electronic, map-based record keeping. During 2023, we began to convert our paper files over to a cloud-based storage method using Landscape software. This is online software that tracks and reports on every aspect of land conservation work from acquisition to stewardship. Using a powerful database including a combination of internal and external property records, and Global Information Systems (GIS) map-based software, the program integrates project management, mapping, and document cloud storage.
Landscape is designed to meet the needs of land trusts like Berks Nature who regularly implement conservation initiatives. The greatest strengths of Landscape include the graphical mapping component interfaced with electronic database storage, and that these are equally accessible in the field or office. We are all exited to further integrate Landscape into our work for greater efficacy and efficiency.
Another significant effort to report on from 2023 includes our application for accreditation through the Land Trust Alliance (LTA). This application cycle includes the concerted efforts of many Berks Nature staff dating back to before 2012. The operations of Berks Nature are rigorously guided by LTA protocols which hold national significance. The accreditation application is a multi-step process, which commenced during late-2022 and will continue into late-winter or early-spring of 2024. We are excited and hopeful for accreditation through the LTA.
And finally, Berks Nature celebrates its 50th anniversary this year!
While Berks Nature will celebrate the milestone of conserving land for a half century, and surpassing 10,000 acres conserved by easement (and so many other great achievements), what will the next 50 years look like? This is an unprecedented time for land and water conservation as we are witness to rapid rise in global temperatures, an ever-increasing human population, a continual demand to convert open space to development, the depletion of freshwater resources, global reduction in species diversity, loss of farmland: the list goes on.
Now more than ever, our conservation efforts are critically important. Please help us strategize and implement our initiatives during 2024 by participating in Berks Nature programs. Enjoy hiking our preserves, which are accessible for all to enjoy. Help us celebrate our achievements of the past 50 years by being a part of the next 50 and being present in the moment. Join and participate with our community of conservation values and help us make the Earth a healthier place during 2024 and beyond.