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Community , Community Projects

Beyond the Mission Statement: North Branch Land Trust

In our effort to create NEPA’s most comprehensive nonprofit directory, we came across hundreds of amazing organizations. Naturally, we wanted to share their inspiring stories.

In this series, we aim to highlight the hard-working organizations, the good people, the selfless volunteers, the helpers, the healers, the listeners, the comforters and all the great work they do. We hope that, through these stories, you too will be inspired to lend your time, your hands and your hearts. Follow along as we take a look beyond the mission statement.

Preserving Natural Resources For All Time

Will Conyngham has a deep connection to the land his family calls home. From the front porch of his charming 1850s farmhouse in Lehman, across the pasture and beyond the horse barn, is a view of the landmark building that is the origin story of his family’s 40-acre farm – Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s Hayfield House.

Completed in 1933, the stunning Georgian mansion was the summer home to coal baron, John Conyngham, Will’s great Uncle, and his wife, Bertha. After her passing in the 1960s, the family donated the house and 40-acres of land to establish a permanent home for the University in the region.

In 1981, Will and his wife Chris became the owners of one of the original farmhouses and 10-acres of the family land now known as Over Fork Farm. Over time, they acquired an additional 30 acres and have kept the barn in use as a home to their seven horses.

For Will, this familial plot of land where he and Chris raised their four children is a refuge containing vital natural resources. It’s a place he never wants to see subdivided or overpopulated. “We love this land and I’m trying to preserve it,” says Will. So, he’s done the one thing he can do to protect it. In 2022, they placed a conservation easement on the property. This ensures that in perpetuity the land will look the same 100 years from now as it does today and has for nearly a century.

“It can be our own little contribution to saving the world,” quips Will.

 

Rapid Development Causes Citizen Concern

 

Will & Chris Conyngham’s residence, Over Fork Farm, Lehman, PA

Community unease leads to action.

Concerns over the rapid growth and development of the Pocono’s in the 80s, and increased development in the Back Mountain, was the catalyst for forming the group. And as a founding member of what was originally named the Back Mountain Citizens Counsel, Will, along with Dr. Doug Ayers (yes, the late Dr. Ayers of The Lands at Hillside Farms), former Penn State Wilkes-Barre President Jim Ryan and others got together for a single purpose: to create a conservation trust that would preserve lands and natural resources.

“The genesis of the idea,” states Ellen Ferretti, Executive Director of North Branch Land Trust (NBLT), “was the loss of what some would call the character of the Back Mountain. And the desire to find out what could be done to work with willing landowners to help protect some of what people love in the Back Mountain.”

By having a conservation easement, it allows a land owner and the land trust to set parameters and limit certain uses or changes to the land. For example, Will’s easement specifies that the land is never to be divided. And no other houses can ever be built on it. The land remains the private property of the owner while helping to ensure it remains the way it is in perpetuity. As for future generations and homeowners, they must abide by the easement and follow its directive.

 

Protecting the North Branch of the Susquehanna and Beyond

 

Sue Libertoski, Office Administrator; Karley Stasko, Marketing & Development; Ellen Ferretti, Executive Director; Emma Thompson, Conservation & Stewardship

NBLT’s mission is to conserve the natural, working, and scenic landscapes in NEPA that enrich our lives.

So far, the nonprofit has conserved over 23,000 acres of land across eight counties. Those include Bradford, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming. A thousand of those acres are lands NBLT owns. Of those, 600 acres of nature preserves and sanctuaries are open to the public for recreational use. The other 400 acres are home to rare habits and threatened and endangered species of plants, including orchids. These areas are sensitive spaces that can be visited by appointment only. The rest is private acreage owned by landowners.

“When we purchased our property, we knew that we had acquired a very special place,” says Diane Davies. She worked with NBLT to place an easement on her family’s 34-acres of land in Mehoopany, Wyoming County. “We knew that when you own such a magnificent piece of land, with it comes a great responsibility to protect and preserve such a wonderful place. With the continuing pressures of development of land everywhere, these protected properties become that much more precious to protect animal habitat, water resources and natural resources overall.”

Besides working with private citizens, the group also receives lands through donation. Vosburg Neck State Park, formerly the Howland Preserve, was once their land. NBLT also purchases lands to conserve. They’re currently working on their biggest deal, the Hanover Reservoir. Once complete, they’ll transfer the 1,400-acre woodland space to the Bureau of Forestry as part of the Pinchot Forest District.

 

Conservation with a Focus on Stewardship

 

Bear Creek Lake View Preserve

Love of land, water and life is a common thread between NBLT and citizen conservationists.

“We have something beautiful here,” says Ellen. “It needs to be enjoyed and stewarded, but protected.”

Clean air, clean water, aesthetic beauty and the ability to go out and enjoy nature are the immediate benefits of the work they do. While our state parks and forests and the habitats they support enrich us and sustain us, it’s our responsibility to care for the lands that make this a special place to call home.

For Ellen, the long-term effects of NBLT work are their driving force. “What we do today will be here forever. Our space is the balance of the beauty. Protecting the natural resources in Northeastern, PA. Clean air, clean water, water absorption, and when appropriate, fabulous outdoor recreational opportunities.”

To expand their reach, NBLT is currently working on a strategic plan. The goal is to pinpoint areas rich in critical and natural recourses where they should proactively focus their efforts over the next five years. Areas essential for clean water for the north branch of the Susquehanna, protected forests, working agricultural lands, or adjoining NBLT spaces are at the top of their list.

They’d also like to see more people enjoying their beautiful preserves. Walk & Talks with experts, college professors or college students. School group trips. Cleanups. And networking opportunities for those in the natural sciences fields.

Above all, the stewardship of the land is vital, emphasizes Ellen. Whether on NBLT lands, your own property, or state parks and forests, “giving back to the thing that is giving us such joy,” is crucial.

 

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