Daily Local News: Natural Lands announces completion of two significant preservation steps

February 14, 2018

By Michael Rellahan, Daily Local News


Natural Lands, the Delaware Valley region’s oldest and largest land conservation organization, announced the completion of two significant preservation steps last week involving hundreds of acres of open space in Chester County.

On Wednesday, the organization said that it had finalized the addition of about 20 acres of rare environmental habitat to its ChesLen Preserve in Newlin, expanding it to 1,282 acres that it purchased from an adjacent neighbor. The recently acquired acreage is part of an ecosystem known as the Unionville Serpentine Barrens, which supports a number of threatened plant and animal species.

Then on Thursday, Natural Lands President Molly Morrison announced that it had officially met its $5 million goal to fund the purchase of the Byrn Coed Farms property in northern Chester County, allowing it to conserve 1,500 acres of Chester Springs farmland and to eventually create a 500 acre public land preserve.

“We are thrilled with the generosity and the support of the community,” said Morrison in marking what she called a “huge milestone” in the organization’s conservation efforts. “In contributing to the Bryn Coed campaign, more than 700 households spoke with eloquence, conveying the importance that they place on having protected open spaces in their community.”

Protecting Bryn Coed was an important goal both for the organization and for residents of the area, she said. The land had been targeted in the recent past by developers, who could have carved it into as many as 700 homes, destroying natural habitat and watershed and flooding the municipalities in whose boundaries it sits with suburban sprawl.

“Our goal was ambitious,” Morrison said by telephone on Friday. “But truly it was a rewarding journey because we got to meet so many people in the community who supported the project.

“This is their backyard,” she said of the Bryn Coed land, once owned by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts.

As she described them, both the Bryn Coed campaign and the addition of land to the ChesLen Preserve presented Natural Lands with challenges. But the end result means that precious open space will be preserved for public benefit.

In a joint statement released by the organization, Chester County Commissioners Michelle Kichline, Kathi Cozzone, and Terence Farrell offered congratulations for the ChesLen addition.

“This project is a great example of Chester County’s public-private partnerships investing in a future that maintains our tremendous quality of place,” the trio stated.

In 2010, the Unionville Barrens was designated a “Wild Plant Sanctuary” by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The Wild Plant Sanctuary Program, as part of the Wild Resource Conservation Act of 1982, was created to establish a voluntary statewide network of native plant sanctuaries. Landowners agree to protect the area and educate others about the importance of native and wild plants and habitats.

“Whenever land is protected in rapidly developing areas there is reason to rejoice, but this expansion of Natural Lands’ ChesLen Preserve takes on very special meaning,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “This department is proud to aid in the protection of this rare ecosystem and the threatened plant and animal species found there.”

Funding for the addition was provided by the DCNR, Chester County’s Preservation Partnership Program, and the Cheshire Land Preservation Fund.

ChesLen was the vision of philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, whose 2007 donation of 568 acres to Natural Lands inspired the county to transfer 500 additional acres across from the closed Embreeville Hospital site, thus establishing the preserve. Since that time, Natural Lands has added more than 200 acres to the preserve through purchases of adjoining lands.

According to the release, Serpentine barrens derive their name from the presence of a type of rare, greenish bedrock from which the soils are weathered. The soil’s peculiar chemical characteristics make it inhospitable to all but a few tenacious plant species that have adapted to these extreme conditions. The term “barrens” was coined by farmers who discovered long ago that the soils were poor for growing crops.

“There were once 40 barrens sites in the eastern United States; today, there are fewer than 20,” explained Molly Morrison. “Natural Lands has long prioritized not only the permanent protection of the Unionville Barrens but also believes deeply in our commitment to restoring this unique habitat.”

As for the Bryn Coed project, Morrison said her organization was indebted to the county’s open space funding, the DCNR, and the William Penn Foundation for their financial support.

“The scale of this project and its impact on water quality in Pickering Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River, make this a regionally significant opportunity to create permanently protected open space with substantial public access that will also have lasting effects on our clean water,” said Andrew Johnson, program director for watershed protection at the William Penn Foundation. “It is truly exciting that Natural Lands has demonstrated its expertise in making this complicated transaction happen, and that the community has stepped up with significant funding.”

Other groups involved include The Spurlino Family Foundation and the RJM Foundation.

More than those donors, the organization was able to raise funds from individual residents who gave gifts of from $5 to $500,000 for the effort.

Campaign co-chairs George and Christy Martin and Peter and Eliza Zimmerman hauled the fundraising effort’s completion.

“When Natural Lands first asked us if we thought that we could raise $5 million from the community we said, ‘Yes, of course.’ We really thought that it would take a long time to get there, but the response from so many people at so many giving levels has just been fantastic! Now we can’t wait to get in there and start enjoying this new neighborhood treasure,” said the Martins, according to a release.

“We were honored to be part of the effort to save Bryn Coed Farms. The overwhelming support from the community speaks to the importance of land conservation — particularly this property. We are grateful to Natural Lands for their courage and vision in spearheading the effort,” said the Zimmermans.

At Bryn Coed, Natural Lands will establish a 500-acre nature preserve, which will be open to visitors, free of charge, just like Natural Lands’ 43 other preserves. Bryn Coed Preserve will receive the highest level of care and proactive stewardship from Natural Lands’ team of land management experts, the organization promised.

Because of the success of the fundriaisng campaign, the preserve will now include the parcel of land with the iconic white oak tree on St. Matthews Road. The tree is a Pennsylvania Champion Tree, and represents one of the largest of its species in the state.

Natural Lands plans to host programs at the preserve, such as bird walks, nature craft workshops, stargazing gatherings, and family-oriented outings.

Natural Lands hopes to open Bryn Coed Preserve to the public in the late fall of 2018.

​The remainder of the property has been divided into large parcels, protected by conservation easements that will be held and enforced by Natural Lands, and sold to private individuals who want to be a part of a unique conservation community.