Main Line Today: Media’s Natural Lands Trust Protects Sacred Main Line Ground
One of the nation’s oldest and largest organizations of its kind, NLT is also one of the lesser-known. President Molly Morrison is set to change that.
By J.F. Pirro, September 2012
The path past the barn to the converted farmhouse office is bordered mostly by native flowering perennials. “And they’re not weeds,” says Molly Morrison.
Here at Hildacy Farm Preserve in Media, Morrison oversees Natural Lands Trust, one of the oldest and largest organizations of its kind anywhere, with a service portfolio centered on Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey. NLT may share territory with other land trusts—particularly in Chester County—but none match its combined competency and capacity for conservation.
NLT began in 1953 as the Philadelphia Conservationists, a group of avid bird watchers united to protect the marshes at Tinicum on the Delaware River. Led by Allston Jenkins, they convinced Gulf Oil to deed 168 acres of prime bird habitat to Philadelphia, foiling plans to fill the area with dredging material from the Schuylkill River. It’s now the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.
Whereas other trusts focus on agricultural preservation or—like the Brandywine Conservancy—a specific watershed, NLT has evolved into an eclectic agency that partners with individual landowners, municipalities and even other land trusts to achieve conservation goals.
Morrison has spearheaded more than a decade of growth. And increased work with municipalities has resulted in more of the same, further positioning NLT with serious leverage. Since she arrived—first on the board of trustees in 1997, and as CEO and now president since 2005—the nonprofit has saved more than 33,000 acres, a third of its total 100,000.
Uniquely, Morrison emerged from a municipal background. She first made use of a master’s degree in communications from Syracuse University as the public information officer in Chester County, then as director of policy and planning for its board of commissioners.
Morrison’s desire to “know a lot about a lot” parallels NLT’s increasingly diverse mission statement. As part of its evolution, the organization no longer simply protects properties—it fosters their stewardship. NLT also exports its in-house expertise, while connecting the public to the many natural assets of its virtually sacred lands. “We own a lot of properties,” says Morrison. “But at the end of the day, people should have access to them.”
In Chester County’s Hopewell Big Woods forest, where NLT’s Crow’s Nest Preserve in Elverson is the gateway, the organization has entered into a partnership to preserve 73,000 contiguous acres. There’s also the White Clay Creek watershed by NLT’s Stroud Preserve—one of multiple areas where the Brandywine Conservancy also has a presence.
Where there are important historical and ecological reasons to protect the landscape, “contiguity is important,” says Morrison. And the more critical the mass of protected open space, the better. “There’s enough land to have multiple trusts working in the same landscape,” she says. “There’s no reason to draw boundaries, and none of us has enough independent resources to see everything we want done get done. It’s a good thing there are so many of us.”
Between NLT and other like-minded groups, its more about collaboration than competition. Each partenership helps spread the conservation message further. “What we do is reinforced by what they do, and what they do reinforces what we do,” says Morrison.
On July 1 of this year, Montgomery County Lands Trust became an NLT affiliate. It’s the organization’s first merger with another land trust, a “forward-thinking” trend that Morrison sees as increasingly viable, compelling and beneficial. “It’s a terrific match of our breadth with their local knowledge,” she says.
Among 1,700 land trusts nationwide, NLT is most distinct for its longevity. It had the first conservation easement in the state in 1966, on what’s now YMCA property in Tredyffrin Township. NLT also established Pennsylvania’s first preserve in 1959: Sharp’s Woods in Easttown Township. NLT owns 3,000-plus acres in Chester County—more land than the parks and recreation department. Its 100,000 saved acres is half the acreage of Pennsylvania’s state parks system.
With its $6 million annual operating budget, NLT owns and manages 41 nature preserves in two states, spanning 13 counties and totaling 21,000 acres. Of the 41, 17 are open to the public. It has 289 protected properties under conservation easement—more than 20,000 acres.
So why is the Natural Lands Trust still such a secret? In large part, it only has itself to blame. Its wide geographic breadth doesn’t lend itself to any one local identity. “There’s a generic aspect to our name,” Morrison concedes. “We are who we are.”
Donors don’t seem to mind. Of them, 40 percent have supported the nonprofit more than 10 consecutive years, a number that reflects passion. “It also speaks to being effective,” says Peter Hausmann, who chairs NLT’s board of trustees.
In Chester County, the ChesLen Preserve in Unionville remains a model of partnering possibilities. In 2007, individual landowners Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest partnered with Chester County. A year later, a third private, anonymous donor created what’s now a 1,263-acre expanse. A new 197-acre tract dubbed Unionville Barrens is rich with a unique serpentine bedrock. Today, there are fewer than 20 such sites left in the eastern United States.
NLT’s comprehensive, long-term plan for ChesLen entails restoring the grasslands to almost 50 acres (three-quarters their historical size). Today, a mere seven acres remain of this precious ecosystem. Ground has also been broken on a preserve center.
Other projects have represented an even longer-term view of conservation. Sadsbury Woods Preserve in Coatesville is a 508-acre tract that involved the acquisition of 23 parcels over a 12-year span. “It’s not just about what’s accomplished today,” Morrison says.
NLT has also helped townships’ open-space programs philosophically morph from an acquisition to a stewardship mindset. It’s completed assessments for four East Bradford Township parks. It’s also working with East Goshen Township to remove invasive plants, widen riparian buffers, prune hazardous tree limbs, and even install bluebird-nest boxes at local parks.
Recently, it’s returned to its roots and will again have a high-profile city presence in its collaborations with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. The restoration of tidal wetlands at Pier 70 Boulevard will provide vital habitats for various aquatic species. Plans for the ecological park include boardwalks, observation decks and a waterfront trail.
Raised in Phoenixville, Molly Morrison spent time on her grandparents’ farm in Kimberton and enjoyed summer vacations in the Canadian wilderness. “At some point, it just becomes part of who you are,” she says.
Landing at NLT was part personal passion, part luck. In the mid- to late-1980s, Morrison was on the ground floor when Chester County began considering its role in protecting open, agricultural and recreational space. It’s where she met NTL’s Hausmann. When he heard that she planned to retire from county work, he asked her to join on.
What Morrison does best, Hausmann says, is unify and synthesize individual input into a vital consensus. “To do that, she’s obviously been disciplined—even in her words and with what she does,” he says. “It’s tough to say our growth is due to one person, but she’s built success by building a team that’s going in the same direction.”
NLT has 60 staff members, plus its board. The newest member is Penny Watkins, an ideal addition. The gardens at Toad Hall, her former property in Berwyn, are archived at the Smithsonian Institution. NLT’s nature preserves inspired her to install a 2.5-acre wildflower meadow behind her Willistown home.
Add to the mix NLT’s recent inaugural class of volunteers from Force of Nature, an in-depth training-and-service program that prepares graduates as NLT trail ambassadors or team leaders. Capped at 35, the program already has more interest than it can support for next year.
NLT is also well aware of the need to target younger generations. A new app, Scavenger, connects directly and exclusively (for now) with Stroud Preserve. There’s also more public outreach these days. NLT once hosted events for members only. These days, it’s broadened that approach, too.
“We have to always make sure that there’s a future constituency for conservation,” says Morrison. “We want to help kids to learn what I did while growing up.”
Morrison’s priority on the job remains fundraising among diverse constituents. But she views it as friend-raising—and helping to collectively build a desirable quality of life while growing a sense of community in the region.“We used to protect land from people,” says Morrison. “Now, we protect land for people.”