Braving torrential rains and mud Saturday afternoon, nearly 100 supporters donned their Wellies to attend the 14th Annual Tinicum Conservancy Community Celebration at Black Sheep Farm, a 62-acre property protected in 2005 and located in the rolling hills of Pipersville.
For some, the weather might have put a damper on the sprawling property’s pre-event walkabout, but the high-energy gathering held inside the farm’s historic barn confirmed the enduring value of the conservancy’s mission to the community it has served for over three decades.
Back in the early 1990s it might have seemed the concept of local land preservation was not exactly at the top of Tinicum residents’ concerns.
Not true, says Jim Engel, the Tinicum Conservancy’s executive director of 16 years.
“Back then, there was a literal explosion of national interest in land preservation efforts, with ample open space state funding available,” Engel said.
The challenge? Larger regional land trusts were not paying meaningful attention to land protection in and around Bucks County.
In 1992, a group of conservation-minded residents, formed a bare-bones local conservancy. Within eight years, it had conserved 1,000 acres, by 2004, another thousand, then another thousand by 2007. To date, more than 5,000 acres in and around Tinicum are protected and monitored by the conservancy, working across six townships, primarily in Nockamixon and Bridgeton.
Sue Bunkin, along with her late husband Mitch, were two of the handful of original conservancy founders.
The Heritage Conservancy had come out to Tinicum to look at several properties needing preservation, Bunkin stated. “But ultimately, they did nothing. So, we decided we needed to put our money where our mouths were.”
Today, the Tinicum Conservancy has been accredited three times by the highly regarded National Land Trust Alliance, maintaining a small administrative staff magnified by 75 volunteers operating in office, field and fundraising roles.
“The highly proficient skill sets of the conservancy’s volunteer workforce, be they graphic artists, financial or business professionals, are talents we could never afford to pay for, said Engel.
In addition, the conservancy’s board of trustees includes a group of ecologists and several renowned botanists with scientific backgrounds.
“They allow us to dive deeper than just saving scenic properties. There is a distinct science to all this,” he said. “We maintain relationships with some 170 landowners and carefully monitor over 120 easements via our volunteer workforce to ensure owners are acting within strict federal tax requirements.”
Negotiating new land easements can be challenging, Engel said. Not all landowners support protecting the open spaces, expressing concerns that local tax dollars are being taken away from the township by the meaningful property tax incentives provided.
“We cannot force anyone to provide an easement donation any more than we can oblige residents to volunteer or donate in support of our mission,” Engel said. “Even if some of our preserved lands become inaccessible to residents, they will remain protected for life — alongside our watersheds and wide-open tracts of farmland. That’s the real benefit here.”
Engel can promote some encouraging statistics.
“More than 600 of our donors have remained steadfast supporters for over a 10-year period, with 20% advocating continuously over two decades,” he said. “If we continue to do our jobs right, I’m confident more landowners will continue to come onboard.”