Last year we aired seven episodes of Environmental Voices – and they all ran roughly an hour long. Today, we’re doing something a bit different. A shorter episode, about 20 minutes, and just one guest.
For this episode we’re featuring a special interview with Jeanne Bonnie Van Alen. Bonnie recently stepped down from the position of Executive Director and President of Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT), a nonprofit land trust and conservation organization she founded over twenty-five years ago in Chester County, outside of Philadelphia.
Bonnie is also being honored this year as one of the women receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in Conservation from PennFuture’s 2023 Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards presented by Ecosave.
Each year, PennFuture honors the accomplishments of outstanding women conservationists across Pennsylvania. The Ecosave presents 2023 Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards will tell the stories of 11 amazing women from Southeastern PA, and will take place live at the Fitler Club in Philly from 6-9pm on Tuesday, March 21st. Along with the awards, the evening will feature drinks & a dinner with an environmentally conscientious vegetarian menu.
You can visit pennfuture.org to purchase tickets and for more information about all the women being honored at the event.
Unfortunately, Jeanne Bonnie Van Alen will not be able to attend the live event, so we have instead asked her to join this special podcast to learn more about, and to celebrate, her life’s work.
For more information about PennFuture, visit pennfuture.org
Welcome back to another episode of Environmental Voices,the Penn Future Podcast.My name is Travis Dina Penn Future's Director of Development,and I'm your host.And for our first new episode in2023,we'll start off with welcoming our newest sponsor.Environmental Voices is now sponsored by Infinity Designing and installing Solar power systems for homes and businesses in central and western PA since2005.Information on how Infinity can help to achieve net zero energy can be firstname.lastname@example.org.Thank you.Infinity Environmental Voices is also sponsored by Ben Future Pennsylvania's watchdog for clean air,clean water,and clean energy.You can find out more and become a email@example.com.Last year we aired seven episodes of Environmental Voices and they all ran roughly an hour long.Today we're doing something a bit different,a shorter episode,about20minutes,and just one guest for this episode,we're featuring a special interview with Jean Bonnie Van Allen.Bonnie recently stepped down from the position of executive director and president of Willis Town Conservation Trust,a nonprofit land trust and conservation organization she founded over25years ago in Chester County outside of Philadelphia.Bonnie is also being honored this year as one of the women receiving a lifetime achievement award in conservation from Penn Futures2023,celebrating Women in Conservation Awards presented by ECOS Safe.Each year,Penn Future honors the accomplishments of outstanding women conservationists across Pennsylvania.This is the eighth time for the event.The ECOS Save Presents2023.Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards will tell the stories of11amazing women from southeastern PA and will take place live at the Fittler Club in Philly from six to9:00PM on Tuesday,March21st.Along with the awards,the evening will feature drinks and a dinner with an environmentally conscientious vegetarian menu.You can visit Penn future.org purchase tickets,and for more information about all the women being honored at the event,unfortunately,Jean Bonney Van Allen will not be able to attend the live event,so we've instead asked her to join this special podcast to learn more about and to celebrate her life's work.Bonnie,welcome to Environmental Voices.Thank you.It is great to have you here.I am sorry that you're not gonna be able to make our Women in Conservation Dinner on the21st of March,but I'm really glad to have this,this opportunity to chat with you today,Bonnie.Speaker 2:
Oh,well thank you TAs.I'm so sorry I won't be able to be there with those,all those other wonderful womenSpeaker 1:
<laugh>.It's,it's gonna be a great night and,and we'll certainly promote it,uh,more later.But,uh,congratulations to you on the Lifetime Achievement Award.Uh,and we give a few of those out every year,and you are,uh,uh,one of the,uh,original three this year.And actually we have a a fourth person we're honoring,uh,this year.That's kind of a surprise that,uh,we're gonna be announcing soon.Uh,so I'll let people tune in for that.But you have had quite the career and,and I wanna talk of chorus about your work with Willis Town Conservation Trust.But Bonnie,before we get into that,I wanna go back a little bit because I know you attended Penn State,as did I,as did a lot of our listeners and a lot of our staff.Mm-hmm.<affirmative>.Uh,so what did you,what did you study at Penn State?Is,is that part of what led to your work?Speaker 2:
You know,it really isn't Travis.Um mm-hmm.<affirmative>,I was a liberal major at Penn State,and,um,actually I loved getting out in the woods up there.I had a friend who would take me groth shooting<laugh>.Oh,wow.But,uh,other than that,no,it really didn't influence my career.Um,it was more my childhood,I think being in the outdoors and growing up on a farm in Chester Springs and really being a free range kid,I was just allowed to go out and explore nature.And I went to a country school that promoted the outdoors and,um,and nature we actually had at that school,we had the first day of fishing season offSpeaker 1:
<laugh>.Oh,wow.That's great.Yeah,I mean,I know a lot of schools,you know,give,uh,the first day of deer hunting season off,but I've never heard that for fishing seasonSpeaker 2:
<laugh>.Well,truth be told,maybe we just took it off,but it was a big holiday.<laugh>.Speaker 1:
Well,that's very cool.So when then,did you really start becoming aware of environmental issues then?It was,it was after school then.I mean,I know you obviously cared about the nature and outside,but,but in terms of actual issues and wanting to get involved in,in the way you have.Speaker 2:
Yeah.Well,it was really after Jim and I were married and starting to bring up a family,um,and I was working at the Academy of Natural Sciences.Um,I started out teaching their,uh,teaching inner city kids,bringing them into the academy and teaching them about nature.So I spent a good bit of time at the academy.Um,and eventually I became a,a trustee of the academy,and that really kindled my,the more scientific aspect of thinking about nature.Okay.Um,but it really wasn't until we bought our little farm here in Wills town that I realized that if we didn't do something to preserve open space,that we would be swallowed up by development.Speaker 1:
So tell me about Willis Town.For those who don't know,where is it and what's your,your farm like?Speaker 2:
Yeah.Well,we,we have a little farm in the middle of the Willis Town.Willis Town at the time we started was fairly rural.Mm-hmm.<affirmative>,uh,we were,we were not considered part of the main line.Um,it was a trek for people to get out here.Uh,it seemed like more of a destination,but there was enough open country left that really warranted,um,trying to put together a,an effort to preserve the open lands that were left.So I approached,uh,frolic down at the Brandy Wine Conservancy,and I had just heard about the tool called a conservation easement.And I knew that Brandy Wine was using that tool to work with landowners to preserve their properties.And Frak said,yeah,let's get a satellite program started out in the Willis Town area.And,uh,that's what we did.We formed the Willis Town Area Conservation Program under the umbrella of Brandywine,and I was able to use the Brandy wine staff and,um,and work with the lawyers down there to,to approach landowners out here about doing conservation easements on their land.Go.Speaker 1:
I wanna pause you there for a second,if you don't mind.Explain to me a bit more what a conservation easement is.Speaker 2:
Yeah.A conservation easement is a,a legal agreement that a landowner can enter into with a nonprofit conservation organization in which they agree to restrict certain future uses of their land being,being development restrictions.And then in addition to that,uh,the document also adds in other environmental restrictions,like not building on steep slopes and protecting the floodplains and any,any other aspects that a landowner wishes to leave as the legacy of conservation on their property.The landowner still owns the land,but mm-hmm.<affirmative>,but these restrictions pass along with the deed forever.Speaker 1:
Okay.So,so you were able to do this with,with Brandy Wine Conservancy's help and,and,and again,this area of Willis Town,but how far away from,from,I mean,to give us a geographic perspective from downtown filler?So is thatSpeaker 2:
Yeah,we're,we're within20miles of Philadelphia.Okay.Um,yep.And we're just kind of west a little bit northwest.Speaker 1:
And as you said,at the time,it was still a pretty rural area.I'm guessing that the surrounding area is not like that anymore.Speaker 2:
Yeah,no,we,we,fortunately we started early enough where the development pressures were just beginning,um,to come in from,really from all sides.And,but it was really a lot of open farmland,um,a lot of kind of gentleman farmland and,uh,just still an area where you could ride forever and walk across other people's properties.And it just was a very,somebody called it a sleepy laid back area.Speaker 1:
<laugh>.Nice.So my understanding is that you worked with about what90landowners and,and we're talking several thousand acres here that are protected.Speaker 2:
Well,that was under the brand new line.Um,during those years,I think we worked with90landowners mm-hmm.<affirmative>to protect several thousand acres,and then we became the Willis Town Conservation Trust in,um,the mid1990s.Okay.And formed our own,um,501[inaudible][inaudible]with a board of trustees and a committed group of community supporters.Speaker 1:
Was,was there something specific that prompted you to,to found this,the new nonprofit?Speaker 2:
Yeah,I think it was the feeling of wanting to have an organization that was community based and would continue on mm-hmm.<affirmative>,uh,with community support.Um,the Brandy wine was fine with the idea,and it just seems that we could get more done with being a more independent organization mm-hmm.Speaker 1:
<affirmative>.And so now there's over,what,7,200acres of land that's part of that?Speaker 2:
Yeah.I think we're up to7,500acres now.Oh,wow.Okay.And,and it's created enough of a viable mass of protected land that we've been able to spawn these other programs.So we started out the first,you know,couple of decades really just protecting land mm-hmm.<affirmative>,but then in the,in the early two thousands was the time when we started the,um,agro Ecology program at Russian Farm.And then that evolved into the Bird Conservation program and,and a lot more opportunity to do environmental research and education.Speaker 1:
Tell me a bit more about that.I mean,do you partner with other organizations or universities,or how does that work?Speaker 2:
We do.We,um,we partner w well,we are a field study site for the Academy of Natural Sciences mm-hmm.<affirmative>,so they bring students out there,particularly their orna uh,pathology students with,uh,from Drexel.And we partner with Stroud Water Research Center.And our bird program is very robust.We,we have a,um,we are now pretty much nationally and becoming more internationally known for our MOTUS program,which is the,um,radio telemetry tracking system that we have been promoting track migratory birds.Speaker 1:
Wow.What,what sort of birds come through the area?Speaker 2:
Well,in the spring and fall we have migrating,um,songbirds in the winter.We,we have a research project,uh,to track a little saw wet awls.Okay.We've been doing tracking and banding them for,um,gosh,I think probably12or15years now.And we,um,have a banding station at Russian Woods Preserve,where we've been doing research there for12or15yearsSpeaker 1:
Now.Are there areas in the conserve land where the public can,you know,observe birds or enjoy the habitat,or,or how does that work?Speaker 2:
Yeah,absolutely.We've created four,um,public preserves.Our largest,well,the preserve where we have the most focus and the most,um,education and research going on is the Russian Woods Preserve.Okay.And on that86acre preserve,we have a,an organic farm.Um,we do a lot of research in agro ecology and the connection between the farm and the natural areas surrounding the farm,how the birds use the farm,and the insects and the pollinators and so forth.And we've really proven the thesis that there is a,a strong symbiotic relationship between agro ecology and the way farmers farm and the,the thriving wildlife,um,that is symbiotic with that.Speaker 1:
Excellent.And then also at Russian Woods Preserve,we have our,um,Russian Conservation Center,which was a building that opened in2018and has become a focal point for bringing people to the,to the area and having events and,um,really opening up our,being welcoming to people from everywhere to come and learn about wildlife nature and go away with a lifelong,uh,love for preserving nature.Speaker 1:
That's,that's so fantastic that you've been a part of this for so long and have been able to work with your neighbors and the community over the years in,in preserving this land.Uh,you must be awfully proud of that.Speaker 2:
Yeah.Well,I think one of the most things I'm most proud about is just the whole,uh,land conservation ethic that has evolved.Um,I think because of the Willis Town Conservation Trust,um,and the whole notion that we are a community and we have a sense of place that has,um,developed because of the protected lands.And,um,just the,we,we think of ourselves now as a community-based organization with a,a broad outreach mm-hmm.<affirmative>,so we not can bring people from afar into our community to learn and be educated and be inspired,but we're also taking our research far afield,for instance,with our watershed work and our,our,particularly our bird conservation work.Speaker 1:
I know,of course,you didn't do this alone,and your friend and partner Alice Homan,was a big part of it.Tell me about Alice.Speaker 2:
Absolutely.Well,Alice was my,my partner right from practically from the beginning,working first with Brandy Wine and then working together to found the Willis Sound Conservation Trust.It was a big,a big,uh,decision to split off from Brandy wine.And Alice was just such a great ally and,and cheerleader and,uh,couldn't have done it without her.And in addition,her husband,Peter Houseman,has been very instrumental from the beginning in helping us do land transactions.Mm-hmm.<affirmative>,and we founded together,Peter and I founded the Del Chester Group,Inc.Which is an,uh,nonprofit entity that we formed to actually acquire lands that we had not been able to get under conservation easement.Okay.Hold onto the lands and then find conservation buyers to turn them over to.And thanks to Peter's,Peter and Alice help with the Dochester Group,Inc.We've preserved a,a significant portion of what we have preserved has been through that process of,um,kind of community partnerships to purchase hold and resell critical lands.Speaker 1:
Sounds like you had to learn a lot about not just land preservation,but real estate.Speaker 2:
Yes.Yeah.Well,I had a real estate license,which helped,um,okay.But I,I only used it for projects that,that where,uh,landowners who wanted to list their properties for sale did not want to sell to developers.Mm-hmm.<affirmative>.So that was kind of a minor part,but,um,but yeah,thanks to Peter who was a very,uh,sophisticated in real estate transactions.Um,and then working with a couple of local lawyers who really helped us work our way through partnerships and how limited partnerships work and that sort of thing.Yes.I had a lot of help along the way,<laugh>.Excellent.Thank goodness.Speaker 1:
You retired from the Williston Conservation Trust in2021.What have you been doing since?Speaker 2:
Ah,well,that's right.October,2021.Um,well,uh,I feel very,very fortunate that I was able to turn the reins over to a very talented young woman,Kate Etherington mm-hmm.<affirmative>and,and a very committed board of trustees and a wonderful staff.So Kate's been doing a great job.To answer your question,um,I've stayed very involved with some of the larger land transactions,trying to preserve a couple of the last really larger properties and one in,and then also have stayed very involved in my passion for birds,and particularly promoting,um,the idea of,uh,preserving grassland bird habitat.Um,because grassland birds,as many people know,are the,the ones in the most serious decline,um,really in the Americas,but worldwide.Excellent.So those two have kept me pretty busy<laugh>,Speaker 1:
Sure.But I love it.I love it.Speaker 1:
Very good.What,uh,uh,any projects,uh,that you have coming up in the future you can share with us or just continuing to do that?Speaker 2:
Well,really just continuing to do that.Um,we're working in one land transaction,which is a little bit under the radar in the very beginning stages right now,but,um,but the grass fund bird project is blossoming.Uh,we're working,particularly in Southern Chester County,some of the grassland hotspots where birds,such as Bob Lengths and Meadow LARCs are still thriving and trying to work with farmers and landowners to just learn how to manage the properties a little bit,um,with a mine toward what the birds need to survive fledging,and,you know,not being mowed by mm-hmm.<affirmative>,um,the hay mower so forth.Speaker 1:
Sure.Sure.Very good.Well,Bonnie,I wish you the best of luck with those,with the new property acquisition and your other work.And again,congratulations on the Lifetime Achievement Award for women in conservation.Uh,you have certainly,your career has had a huge impact on your part of the world,and I know is greatly appreciated by your friends and neighbors and the people who get to enjoy,uh,the Wilson Conservation Trust,whether living there or coming to visit there or doing research there,uh,really important work that you've done over the years.Thank you for that.Speaker 2:
Oh,well,thank you Travis,and thank you.I'm so honored and pleased to be part of,of your wonderful organization.And thank you for this.Speaker 1:
And that does it for this special episode of Environmental Voices,the Penn Future Podcast.Thanks again to Gene,Bonnie Van Allen for being a part of it.And again,congratulations to her for being selected to receive a lifetime achievement award in conservation.Penn Future's2023,celebrating Women in Conservation awards presented by e c.You can visit penn future.org to purchase tickets and for more information about all the women being honored at the event.If you enjoyed this episode,make sure to subscribe and leave behind a review of Environmental Voices and future Podcasts wherever you get your podcast.And as always,please let us know what you'd like to hear on future episodes.And thanks again to our newest sponsor,infinity Designing and installing Solar Power Systems for homes and businesses in central and western PA since2005.Information on how Infinity can help to achieve net zero energy can be firstname.lastname@example.org.Environmental Voices is also sponsored by Penn Future Pennsylvania's watchdog for clean air,clean water,and clean energy.You can find out more and become a email@example.com.And if you're interested in becoming a sponsor,please let us know.Today's show is written and produced by me,your host,an audio engineer,Travis Dekoman.Our executive producer is Matt,Steph.Our music is thanks to pxa bay.com.Thank you for listening to Environmental Voices Penn Future Podcast.