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DVOC 2003 CONSERVATION AWARD

Jan and Ken Gordon - Co-Chairpersons

The 2003 DVOC Conservation Award is awarded to Jeanne B. (Bonnie) Van Alen, Alice E. Hausmann and Alexander S. Van Alen for exemplary work for the protection and conservation stewardship of over 10,000 acres of habitat in the Willistown, Pennsylvania region.

The Program Area where Bonnie, Alice and Alex are focusing their efforts is in Willistown, PA and vicinity in Delaware and Chester counties, which is roughly the area between Newtown Square and Paoli, PA. This area is less than 20 miles from Philadelphia. It abuts Ridley Creek State Park on the southeast and is surrounded on the other sides by housing developments, shopping centers, industrial parks and strip malls. The entire area is under intense development pressure. In 1979, Bonnie Van Alen became concerned by the rapid development in the area, and she determined to do something to preserve whatever had so far escaped the bulldozer. She researched the entire area between Newtown Square and Paoli, PA, a roughly 25,000 acre area that includes all or part of 7 townships and boroughs in two counties. Of this land, about 15,000 acres was already developed. The remaining 10,000+ acres included some of the last remaining undeveloped land in the outskirts of Philadelphia, consisting of rolling piedmont with a wide diversity of geology, vegetation and water resources. It includes the watersheds of Ridley Creek, Crum Creek and Darby Creek. Groundcover includes all successional stages of woodlands (old fields to woodlands older than 150 years), meadows, wetlands, vernal pools, floodplains, agricultural fields, pasture and hedgerows. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded in this area. Breeding species include Acadian Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Veery, Wood Thrush; Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, Pine, Prairie, Kentucky and Hooded Warblers; Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Field Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark. Bald Eagle, Osprey and Bobolink have been observed, and Upland Sandpiper has been seen in migration. Of special note are several large (>100 acres) grasslands. Native grassland habitat is rare in southeastern Pennsylvania; forests and wetlands are rapidly disappearing; and streams and riparian borders are under constant threat. Due to the continuing development pressures, this tract is of disproportionate importance to both resident and migratory species of birds and other wildlife. The undeveloped area identified by Bonnie consisted of 457 separate properties totaling 10,369 acres, and was owned by several hundred different owners. Only 331 acres of this area were protected (as preserves owned by the Brandywine Conservancy and the Natural Lands Trust); the remainder was vulnerable to development. Bonnie and those working with her chose this as their Program Area and targeted the entire area for protection.

To date, Bonnie, Alice and Alex have succeeded in protecting approximately half of the Program Area, and are currently working with the 117 different owners of the remaining 5327 acres to achieve its protection. They have snatched thousands of acres from under the noses of developers, sometimes at the last moment. The importance of the area to birdlife was recognized this year by Audubon-Pennsylvania, which added the Program Area to the previously-existing Ridley Creek State Park and Tyler Arboretum Important Bird Area (Ridley/Tyler IBA). This increased the size of the IBA more than 4-fold, and it has been re-named the Upper Ridley/Crum IBA.

The primary mechanism used to protect the land has been the conservation easement. The conservation easement protects the special natural, historic and scenic features of the property (such as woodlands, wetlands, streams, open fields, steep slopes and scenic views); limits future building on the property; and prevents harmful activities such as commercial and industrial uses, quarrying and excavation, dumping, etc. The private owner retains title to the land. Most of the easements provide for public access to trails on the property, but the habitat is there for wildlife whether or not there is public access. The easement remains in effect permanently even if the land is sold; it is thus more durable than zoning regulations, local land use laws or the policies of governmental agencies, all of which can (and do) change through time. Other mechanisms that have been used to protect the land include agricultural easement, deed covenant, and designation as conservation preserve or subdivision open space. Bonnie, Alice and Alex have used quite a variety of approaches to achieve this. In some cases, they have convinced private landowners to place conservation easements on their land and donate the easement for conservation purposes; this gives tax benefits to the landowner because it lowers the value of the land, since the land then cannot be sold for development. In other cases, landowners were unwilling to place such easements; but Bonnie, Alice and Alex found prospective buyers of the land who were willing to place such easements, and arranged the sale to them. Some of these deals have been highly complex, involving multiple private individuals and public agencies as buyers and with Bonnie, Alex and Alice having to raise money from public and private sources to help finance the deal.

The history of this process is as follows. The process was begun in 1979 by Bonnie, who was assisted for the first 10 years by Kathie McCoy (who has since moved out of the area). By law, conservation easements must be held by someone other than the landowner (so that the landowner has no control): the organization holding the easement can be private or public but it must hold the easement solely for conservation purposes, and it must have the resources to enforce the easement and to take legal action, if necessary, to uphold its terms. Thus, Bonnie and Kathie arranged to work under the umbrella of the Brandywine Conservancy, who acted as the recipient of the donated easements; they called themselves the "Willistown Area Conservation Program." In 1989, after the departure of Kathie McCoy, Alice Hausmann joined Bonnie. After working under the umbrella of the Brandywine Conservancy for many years, Bonnie and Alice became concerned about continuity: since Brandywine Conservancy's interests were primarily elsewhere, they realized that, if anything untoward happened to either of them, the Willistown Area Conservation Program would cease to exist and its work would come to a halt. Thus, in 1995, they formed the Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT) as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and set up a Board of Trustees and other mechanisms to ensure that their conservation work would be perpetuated. Bonnie serves as the President and Executive Director of the WCT and Alice Hausmann serves as the Vice Chairman and Associate Executive Director of the Board of Trustees. At present, the WCT has a full-time staff of nine people.

With the establishment of the WCT and the expansion of its scope, Alex Van Alen joined the group as Director of Land Protection and Stewardship. Alex has expanded the WCT's conservation activities beyond land protection per se. In addition to arranging conservation easements, land sales to conservation buyers, and the like, Alex has been working with owners of both protected and unprotected properties to promote conservation management of the land. Some of these actions are as follows:

" He has worked with owners of grasslands to plant native warm-season grasses, and to adopt mowing schedules (both timing and mowing height) that benefit grasslands-nesting birds.
" He has made arrangements with landowners and local hunting groups to coordinate deer hunting, so as to reduce the severe overpopulation of deer.
" He has worked with landowners and has put together volunteer work groups to restore riparian buffers, particularly along Ridley Creek.
" he has initiated and carried forward programs to remove invasive exotic plants.
" He has worked with landowners and public agencies to remove hedgerows which fragment grasslands.

Thus, for their tireless efforts to protect over 10,000 acres (over 16 square miles) of wildlife habitat in the outskirts of Philadelphia, the 2003 DVOC Conservation Award is awarded to Jeanne B. (Bonnie) Van Alen, Alice E. Hausmann and Alexander S. Van Alen.

 

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