Where nature and people meet

Howard County Conservancy's new director sets goals and balances dual roles at Mount Pleasant


In her new role as executive director of the Howard County Conservancy, Meg Schumacher has to oversee the organization's dual roles as a preservation-focused land trust and an environmental education organization.

She also has to feed the chickens.

There are also goats on Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock, which is the conservancy's headquarters, as well as coyotes, wild turkeys, bugs, birds, gardens, woodlands and two streams. The Gudelsky Environmental Education Center was built on the property a year ago.

Schumacher, who took over the director position last month, said her first goal is to get more people to appreciate and enjoy all the aspects of the organization.

"I am going to keep a focus on getting more people out here," she said.

Summer day camps for youth, with themes such as "gardens galore," "what's bugging you," and "deer and foxes -- oh my" have doubled their enrollment this year compared to 2005, Schumacher said. A preschool program has been full, and about 5,000 children visit each year on school trips.

But attendance during public hours Fridays and Saturdays -- which were first offered last summer -- has been low. Schumacher said many people do not know the farm is open those days for hiking, picnicking, family outings and visiting with the resident animals.

The conservancy's mission as a land trust may also be unfamiliar to some, but Schumacher said that if open land parcels are going to remain "it is really important that we exist and that people know we exist."

Citizens founded the conservancy in 1990 so that there would be a local entity to hold easements on parcels of land.

The specific restrictions of easements vary, but the written agreements protect natural, historic or agricultural features of an area by ensuring the land cannot be subdivided and developed. The first easements held by the conservancy were created by county "cluster zoning" regulations in which developers place buildings close together and leave a piece of the property open.

Other easements are created in exchange for tax benefits, through county or state preservation programs or out of concern for environmental, historic or other issues.

Whatever the reason, when the conservancy accepts an easement, "it is the legal responsibility of the organization to monitor the property and make sure the easement is upheld," said Lynne Nemeth, who was executive director for more than two years before she and her husband decided to move to Arizona.

The conservancy holds easements on about 1,650 acres. The local group sometimes accepts smaller parcels than do state programs, particularly if they are environmentally sensitive areas, or that are adjacent to larger preserved areas.

The Maryland Environmental Trust works in partnership with many local land trusts. Its director, Nick Williams, said the advantages of a local group include knowledge of the area, connections to local landowners and familiarity with the local real estate market.

"All of that kind of local knowledge is very useful in order to get there with some land conservation options before the property moves into the hands of a developer," he said.

Williams said some land trusts do environmental education activities, but, "I'd say the Gudelsky center is very unusual. ... [The conservancy] has given a lot of emphasis to that type of activity, and I think the building goes along very well with that."

In fact, the educational goals of the conservancy began expanding in 1993, when it received Mount Pleasant Farm upon the death of Ruth and Frances Brown. The sisters' ancestor, Thomas Browne, received 1,000 acres in a land grant in 1692.

Because estate taxes were expensive, state and county funds were used to secure some of the land. The conservancy now owns or manages 232 acres, which are under a conservation easement. A farmhouse, built in sections beginning in the early 1700s, stands on the property and is partly open to visitors. Nearby areas are still used to grow crops, and a number of outbuildings and mature trees remain.

If you turn away from Route 99 and the Waverly Woods development, "you can stand here and get a sense of what Howard County looked like 300 years ago," Schumacher said.

New initiatives are under way.

Recently, the conservancy incorporated the instructors and members of Biotrek Naturalists Inc., a nonprofit group that offers advanced nature trips and programs, into its adult education program. Schumacher says its members will be able to offer some new suggestions on how to use the property for educational activities.

On Sept. 30, the conservancy will break ground on a project to reconstruct a centuries-old barn that was removed from Mountjoy, a property in Ellicott City, when that land was developed. The barn has been in storage for more than two years while the conservancy and other partners have raised funds to rebuild it on Mount Pleasant Farm.

Nemeth said she helped choose Schumacher to lead the conservancy because of her experience as a member of the Rockburn Land Trust -- another county preservation organization in eastern Howard County -- and 11 years of nonprofit experience with the American Heart Association.

"Sometimes the right person shows up at the right time," Nemeth said.

As for dealing with the domestic and wild animals at the farm, Nemeth said, "you can't come here and not get an education in the natural world."

Nemeth added: "The first day we hired her, I wanted to see if she'd go into the chicken pen."

Schumacher said she was not concerned because her family had chickens when she was growing up.

"See," Nemeth said. "She's perfect."


The grounds of Mount Pleasant Farm are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Information: www.hc conservancy.org or 410-465-8877.

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