off to a good start

The Land Conservancy Turns Twenty Years 1991 – 2011

Time flies when you’re doing something you love, especially if that something is fulfilling your mission of “preserving our region’s irreplaceable natural environments, farms, forestlands and open space.” It’s hard to imagine that twenty years have already passed since that day in April of 1991 when we officially became the Western New York Land Conservancy. How things have changed in twenty years.

We began as a grass roots organization that counted among its modest assets a Rolodex of possible interested folks, a book of stamps, an office that doubled as a farmhouse kitchen and a 32-cup coffeemaker. Twenty years later we can point with satisfaction to the almost 4400 acres we’ve helped permanently protect across Western New York, 133 of them encompassing our headquarters at Kenneglenn Scenic and Nature Preserve in the Town of Wales. While we have been blessed with five dedicated staff members since 1997, there have been hundreds of volunteers doing lots of the heavy lifting, some coming on board for a short time, many of them for all twenty of our years. Some pitch in with their hands and hearts, maintaining trails or doing office work; some bring expertise from a variety of fields and donate professional services. A land trust is the ultimate multi-disciplinary effort requiring scientists, farmers, engineers, naturalists, surveyors, lawyers, politicians, real estate agents, accountants, leaders and foot soldiers – and we’ve had them all. Regardless of their contribution they all have something in common, a passion for the land and the conviction that any discussion of the ultimate fate of our agricultural, scenic and ecologically significant open spaces must include those of us who understand its real value.

We have had our share of challenges in our first two decades, building a membership and raising the funds to do our work, but they’ve been offset by quite a few successes. All of them are prideworthy, even the smallest at less than five acres, for the contribution they make to the landscape and environmental well-being of Western New York. A few stand out, though: Nature View Park in Amherst; the Clarence Greenprint; significant farmland protection in Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties; and the establishment of our headquarters at the 133-acre Kenneglenn.

There is still so much to do. As our current staff—Executive Director Pat Szarpa, Stewardship Manager Nancy Smith, and Development Coordinator Megan Mills Hoffman – will attest, we are busier than ever with several important projects ongoing and new relationships being forged with those who share our vision. The phones ring off the hook and the email inbox is constantly full of inquiries and suggestions for future projects. So while we take a minute to look back, we can honestly say, “We’re off to a pretty good start,” and gear up for the next twenty years and beyond.

Here then, is a look, however brief and incomplete, at those first years.

About Emily “Lee” Oprea

While the Land Conservancy was formally registered in April of 1991, our beginnings go back further into the 1980s. And in those early days five names stood out: John Whitney from the USDA Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Ken Koehler, farmer, agronomist and soil scientist; environmentalist John Daleo; Clarence farmer and early farmland protection advocate Henry Kreher and Emily “Lee” Oprea.

Lee, the Land Conservancy’s founding mother, spiritual caretaker, original board member and its first acting director, remembers it like this:

I moved to Sardinia, NY, from Greens Farms, CT, in 1984 to manage the family farm called Olmsted Camp and update the 1840s vintage farmhouse. I staged my first living room concert in 1985 in the farmhouse, inviting friends and musicians in for some fun while we were under “renovation.” After that I staged about four open-air “Concerts In The Country” every summer, down at the camp and built a mailing list from the attendees and their friends. These were high-spirited affairs with friends and families enjoying the creek and the woods and providing potluck dinners. All manner of musicians showed up to play, and the dancing was legendary.

Early on, John Whitney, a multi-talented musician as well as a steward of the land, began coming to the concerts with his family, wife Laura and sons Brian and Bradley.

After one of the concerts in 1990, John and I talked about land conservancies, because back in Connecticut there were already over 100 land trusts and those were where my kids and I had always hiked or cross-country skied. The land bordering my home in Greens Farms was a land trust, and my mom even conducted nature tours at one.

At that time I thought it might be a good idea to get some sort of land trust in place, just in case one day there might be no Olmsted who wanted to keep Olmsted Camp going, and maybe the family would agree to preserve it in some other way.

But I was totally ignorant about what a land trust was or how they benefit the donor.

John Whitney knew of others who had mentioned starting a conservancy in WNY and that the Erie County Environmental Management Council had formed an ad hoc committee to explore the issue. He knew there were no land trusts in the area, except the neophyte Genesee Valley Conservancy to the east and the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy that was focusing specifically on the lake. And so John called a meeting in his office in the Soil Conservation Service headquarters in the Erie County Cooperative Extension building. Coincidentally, the WNYLC had its first real office in that space years later.

Attending were John Daleo, Henry Kreher, Ken Koehler, John Whitney and I. By the second meeting I called in a good friend and attorney, David Seeger, to help us file as a NYS charitable trust and compose our bylaws. Another of my friends, Jim Pickering, donated $365 for the filing. Joanne Hameister was the principal drafter of the bylaws and Dave Seeger filed the Articles of Incorporation and other necessary startup papers.

The WNYLC got our “papers” in April of 1991 and could officially announce ourselves to the world. I used my concert mailing list, and the other board members compiled lists of their friends and notables for the first newsletter. We were off and running, using my farmhouse as our official address. Along the way, we picked up more board members. Shortly after the official formation, Paul Rutledge and Kathy Ryan also became involved.

As an early outreach effort (and with a little grant funding through the Land Trust Alliance), we conducted a seminar in each of the eight WNY counties’ – Erie, Niagara, Wyoming, Orleans, Genesee, Allegany, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus – Co-op Extensions and drove through sleet and snow to carry the word. Sometimes four people attended, sometimes twenty and, once, only John Whitney’s father attended, but at least the announcement got in the Extensions’ newsletters and flyers got on the racks…so we were beginning to get a little recognition. It really took a long time to get out the word that we existed…about six years!

John Whitney, John Daleo and Ken Koehler (and Paul Rutledge after he became involved later) did most of the compiling of lists and contacting of landowners and in general kept tabs on EVERYTHING. John Whitney found a grant for a computer, which he installed in my house and taught me how to use.

What did I do?

  1. As secretary (and “acting executive director”), I recorded and typed up the minutes and mailed them to every paid member. I think we got about sixty members almost immediately..
  2. I organized our “Day in the Country” every summer – except the year my sister died (1992).
  3. I typed up and mailed renewal notices and thank you letters.
  4. I fielded phone calls (we used my home phone number) and forwarded most of them on to Whitney.
  5. I manned our display booth at every festival I could attend – to educate the lumpen. Eventually, I rounded up a few volunteers to help me. . . Mark Szpara and MJ Graham especially. Some folks couldn’t even pronounce “conservancy” – let alone know what it meant. One local newspaper editor told me it was too complicated for her readership – I KID YOU NOT!
  6. I wrote a few of the press releases, but most of them were written by John.
  7. I maintained the organizations’ files and records.


Partially Republished from Western New York Land Conservancy PDF:
WNLC Off To A Good Start The Land Conservancy Turns Twenty 1991 – 2011