Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands, highlighted his regional land conservation organization and its partnership with Chester County during a Chester County Planning Commission board meeting April 10th.
Bass said the 65-year-old nonprofit organization “saves open space, cares for nature, and connects people to the outdoors in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.” The organization has been around since the early 1950s thanks to Allston Jenkins, an accountant who took up birding as a hobby.
“In 1953, Allston learned Shell Oil planned to dredge the Schuylkill River and dump the spoils into the Tinicum Marshes,” said Bass. “The following year, 1954, the Philadelphia Conservationists, which was created to address the threat, succeeded in preserving the Tinicum Marshes, now known as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge — the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetlands in Pennsylvania.”
Eventually, the Philadelphia Conservationists became what is now Natural Lands. Today, more than 2.5 million people live within 5 miles of lands under Natural Lands’ permanent protection. Over 125,000 acres have been saved since the organization’s founding, which is equal to half the total acreage of Pennsylvania’s state park system.
Natural Lands has 43 nature preserves with 117 miles of maintained hiking trails located in two states and 13 counties, totaling 22,424 acres. About 20,000 preserve acres are open to the public free of charge, every day of the year with over 100,000 visitors. There are 24,651 acres on 410 privately owned properties under conservation easement that were preserved with Natural Lands’ help. To date, 46 municipalities have adopted the organization’s Growing Greener: Conservation by Design codes, preserving an average of 62 percent of land in new developments as open space.
Bass said Chester County has shown leadership with its open space preservation efforts and added that Natural Lands has benefited “tremendously” from the grant programs Chester County offers such as the Vision Partnership Program and the Preservation Partnership Program.
In Chester County, Natural Lands owns about 4,600 acres of land and holds a number of conservation easements, according to Bass. He highlighted some of the popular preserves in Chester County (ChesLen, Stroud, Binky Lee, and the newly opened Bryn Coed). There will be a public celebration at Bryn Coed Preserve on Saturday, May 5.
Bass also highlighted the work that his organization has done in Chester County municipalities, including East Coventry, London Grove, and East Whiteland.
In the City of Coatesville, Natural Lands has been assisting with implementation of priority projects included in the City of Coatesville Parks 2021: An Action Plan for Lively Parks and Healthy People. The plan is part of the Greening Coatesville Initiative that was launched in 2016 by Natural Lands, the City of Coatesville, and the Brandywine Health Foundation. The initiative aims to improve access to recreation opportunities, improve health outcomes, and build community cohesion in the city. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for Phase 1 of one of those priority projects, Palmer Park, is slated for May 14. Upon completion, Phase 1 will include a unique nature and water play area.
“Our work ranges from open space and recreation plans; conservation-minded zoning and subdivision regulations; management plans for open space; and assistance with open space referenda,” said Bass. “We seek long-term relationships with our municipal clients and especially enjoy when we can offer a suite of conservation services. For example, in Schuylkill Township, we’ve helped them acquire land for over a decade and were hired last summer to write a conservation subdivision ordinance.”
Chester County Planning Commission Board Chairman Kevin Kerr lauded Natural Lands, saying the organization’s work is “top-notch.”
“Your product is second to none and your organization is efficient,” said Kerr. “It’s a joy to work with you.”
Planning Commission Executive Director Brian O’Leary called Natural Lands a “great partner” to the county and thanked the organization for working on Vision Partnership Program projects.
O’Leary also praised Natural Lands’ work on a new study, Return on Environment: The Economic Value of Protected Open Space in Chester County. The report highlights the proven and substantial economic, environmental, and public health benefits of open space preservation to surrounding communities. A partnership of county departments, municipal representatives, land conservancies, and economic development agencies undertook the study to better understand and quantify these benefits. Chester County Commissioners will unveil the results during the Chester County Open Space Summit from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2 at the Lenfest Center at ChesLen Preserve, 1199 Cannery Road, Coatesville. Learn more about the summit.