Death of a Paradise – Time to Reinvent Conservation

Death of a Paradise – Time to Reinvent Conservation

The local or regional land conservancy can play a critical role in preserving farmland, open spaces, and areas of significant biological wealth.  The first step is protecting land from development or other destructive activity.  But then what?  This article highlights why conservancies need ordinary citizens, acting as organized volunteers, to help them fulfill their mission, or they will fail.

Here is how some conservancies articulate their mission:

“… mission is to ensure the perpetual preservation and stewardship of open space, natural resources, historic sites, and working agricultural lands throughout the County”

“…mission primarily by obtaining conservation easements on privately held land and monitoring these easements in perpetuity. Conservation easements, acquired through either donation or purchase, are legal agreements limiting future development in order to protect land for conservation purposes…”

“Just imagine the incalculable benefits which would be achieved if each township in the United States made good use… of whatever conservation opportunities existed within its borders. This is our purpose—to devote our best efforts to specific conservation projects in our local area…”

“…is a non-profit land conservation organization dedicated to protecting the forests, fields, streams, and wetlands that are essential to the sustainability of life in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. We apply a comprehensive approach to conservation that includes permanently protecting natural areas, providing leadership in natural resource management, and creating opportunities for people to connect to and learn from nature…”

Conservation Meadow
Conservation Meadow

Can Conservancies Deliver their Conservation Mission?

Conservancies are certainly protecting land from development; the largest conservancy in the U.S. has protected over 21 million acres .  But how are conservancies and land trusts doing with actual conservation?  Let’s diagnose how the conservancies themselves describe their conservation mission. From the mission statement samples above, we can discern the following key concepts:

Perpetual Stewardship – Perpetual is defined as, “occurring repeatedly; so frequent as to seem endless and uninterrupted.”  “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources.”

Protect for Conservation – Protect is defined as, “keep safe from harm or injury, or, aim to preserve a threatened plant or animal species by preserving its natural state.”  “Conservation is the act of preserving, guarding or protecting…biodiversity, environment, and natural resources, including protection and management.”

Leadership in Natural Resource Management – Leadership is, “doing the right things.”  Natural resource management, “refers to managing such land, water, soil, plants and animals, with a particular focus on how management affects the quality of life for both present and future generations (stewardship).”

Conservancies generally do a lousy job with conservation.  Lack of funding, under-trained stewardship managers, and an uninterested public are the most common culprits.

In most cases, conservation tasks are simple but  labor-intensive.  Good, basic conservation starts, and often ends, with effective weed control yet conservancies lack the funding to hire professional firms (such as ArcheWild) and they lack the manpower (staff) to do the job properly. Volunteering with a conservancy is a good place to start, but there is a better way, a more organized way, for the public to help conservancies engage in conservation.

Case Study: A Failed Conservation Mission

There is, or was, a wonderful natural area in Montgomery County PA that boasts over 400 species on just 150 acres of woodland and meadows.  The four meadows are the crown jewels of this preserve and have historically supported the following species, which could be observed in abundance:

Sanquisorba canadensis (Canadian burnet)

Lilium canadense (Canada lily)

Gentiana andrewsii (closed bottle gentian)

Gentianopsis crinita (greater fringed gentian)

Castilleja coccinea (Indian paintbrush)

Arisaema dracontium (green-dragon)

Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot)

Platanthera lacera (green fringed orchid)

Solidago uliginosa (bog goldenrod)

and many more

Today, the meadows and surrounding edges are overrun with invasive species, particularly Arthraxon hispidus (small carpetgrass), Microstegium vimineum (Nepalese browntop or Japanese stiltgrass), Ranunculus ficaria (lesser celandine or fig buttercup).  These three species have nearly destroyed one of the four meadows and is severely threatening two more.  In the nearly fifteen years that we have been visiting this site to better understand plant communities and how they evolve, we have observed no consistent effort, or even an obvious effort, to control these invasive species.  Our firm attempted to offer assistance to the Executive Director of the managing conservancy several times without response.

So instead of visitors being greeted by something like this:

A native wildflower meadow

Visitors instead see this:


The thatch created by invasive species is so thick it covers fallen logs.  This meadow is nearly devoid of the species it is supposed to host.  A meadow can only look like this if it has been neglected for at least five years. Is doing nothing good conservation?  No.

The real shame is that the invasive species responsible for this destruction are some of the easiest to control.  They are annuals, easy to identify, don’t look anything like desirable species, and are incredibly easy to pull.  A organized team of just 5 volunteers working once a month could have completely prevented this disaster.  It would take a bit more effort to clean the site, but is perfectly doable.

A Return to Paradise?

There is a large and beautiful preserve in Duchess County NY, owned by one of the largest U.S. conservancies, that supports at least 10 globally and state rare to critically endangered species.  From the website for this property, “The rare plant communities are threatened by invasive plants, including autumn olive, privet, buckthorn, Morrow’s honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet. The conservancy is implementing a model weed management program that relies heavily on volunteer involvement.”  I met the volunteer for this site, a man in his sixties and retired, hauling two weed whackers and a five gallon can of fuel up the long, steep hill to the preserve.  He visits the site nearly every day, as he has for years, trying to push back the invasives.  His relationship with the conservancy has not always been constructive; he was caught removing invasives on his own and cited for trespassing.  Through sheer doggedness, the man petitioned the conservancy for years to allow him to continue to fight invasives until the conservancy reluctantly agreed.  It took another two years before the conservancy agreed to buy him a decent weed whacker; he still buys his own fuel.  The task is overwhelming, but this private citizen decided he needed to do something or else the natural beauty and rare plant species might be lost forever.


There are precious few examples of individual citizens, or groups of citizens, getting hands-on with properties managed by conservancies; this must change.  Role models abound of Friends Groups organizing and funding conservation efforts on state, county, or township properties; why not extend the model to conservancies?

Two outstanding examples of regular citizens, organized around a non-profit Friends Group, have performed an exemplary service:

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Association, and

Friends of the State Line Serpentine Barrens

These two Friends’ Groups, using their own ingenuity, have made a profound impact on the health of the properties that they maintain, which again, is mostly about managing invasive species by either cutting them or pulling them at the right time of the year.  Simple techniques, relatively minor investment in equipment, and loads of motivated labor.

Call to Action: Using Friends Groups to Fulfill the Conservation Mission

Conservancies do attract volunteers for a variety of tasks, but they typically directly manage and fund the volunteers’ activities.  A Friends Group works differently; they provide their own funding and organization, which could greatly extend the influence of the sponsoring conservancy. Sponsoring Friends’ Groups would take a concerted effort by the conservancy or land trust to find the right individuals, get them started, and to provide the necessary training.  But once they are up and running, they demonstrate an amazing amount of resourcefulness, dedication, and care.