The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is thrilled to announce that we have received a pledge for a generous gift from anonymous donors that allows us to fully preserve the 24-acre Boy Scout Tract in its entirety. We’ll be placing a conservation easement on the land that will protect it in perpetuity: the forest will never be subdivided, developed, or even farmed.
And we’re elated.
The $3 million donation, the largest gift in the center’s 57-year history, is conditioned on the easement, which will take perhaps nine months to complete; the Center will not receive the donation until this action is finished.
This puts a huge preservation exclamation mark on the story of the Boy Scout Tract. The land sits at the southeastern corner of Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street, across Eva Street from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and abutting the Higher Ground Church International. A maturing forest, the site contains steep slopes and protects a portion of the Green Tree Run watershed. Used by the Scouts as a campground back in the day, the site is physically disconnected from the Schuylkill Center’s main holdings, and hasn’t ever been used in our many programs over many decades. Stretched as we are on managing the 340 acres we actively do use, we have historically been unable to perform any maintenance on the site with the exception of clearing downed and dangerous trees.
The tract was donated to us 40 years ago by one of our founders, Eleanor Houston Smith, as an asset to be sold if the Board of Trustees decided to do so. Over the last 50 years, two bites have been taken out of the property, one to a neighbor who lives in a historic home adjoining the parcel, and a 10-acre piece to the church in the 1980s. More than a year ago, we received a proposal from a conservation-minded family to purchase the property and place two homes and a barn on the site.
But given the request to consider selling the property– one unsolicited from us– our Board of Trustees made the difficult but financially responsible decision to not accept the first and only proposal that came our way. The trustees, conservation-minded individuals one and all, decided to release a Request for Proposals to seek other possibilities. The resulting RFP contained numerous conditions that worked hard to balance preservation with limited development, including protections for steep slopes and floodplains plus preservation of the community’s historic character. This was NOT a decision to sell the land; it was only a decision to explore that possibility.
This past June, at a meeting of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association and the Residents of the Shawmont Valley, we unveiled our plan to release the RFP, and were met by fierce opposition and widespread disappointment, as open space and subdivision are two of Roxborough’s hottest hot-button issues.
We did send the RFP out the next day, while also placing it on our website for anyone to read. I immediately started fielding questions from a variety of parties considering what they might do with the property, and to our delight and amazement, multiple offers came in that proposed to protect and preserve the property. So in September, we announced that we were suspending the RFP process to concentrate only on these offers.
And the community held its breath. So did we.
Happily, of the several avenues we were actively pursuing, one stuck. We began discussing the preservation process with this donor’s representatives in late summer, and it has taken all of this time to get to this very wonderful place.
So the Boy Scout Tract– soon to possibly be christened with a new name (details forthcoming!)– will be added to the portfolio of the Center’s protected open spaces. Our 340 acres of forests and fields are already preserved in perpetuity, and is the largest conservation easement in Philadelphia. On top of this, in the mid-80’s we sold 80 acres of Manatawna Farm on our western flank to the city to be merged into Fairmount Park.
With this impending easement, the Center has now protected almost 450 acres of precious Roxborough open space. We’re very proud of this accomplishment.
We’ll soon engage our board, staff, and other stakeholders in a long and thoughtful process on how we best leverage this gift to its maximum advantage, investing in our staff– our most important resource– not to mention our aging 1960s Visitor Center, our Wildlife Clinic, our programs, and of course our land, battered from the trifecta of invasive plants, deer overbrowsing, and climate change. It will take many months to work through these details. And many months before we receive the donation.
As Natural Lands, a highly respected preservation nonprofit, holds the easement on our 340-acre main campus, we’re also pleased to announce we’re working with them on this new easement too. We’re hoping to sign it sometime in 2023, likely late spring or early summer.
And when we do, we’ll celebrate this accomplishment with our neighbors and community. In the meantime, please know the Boy Scout Tract is moving to the happiest of resolutions. And no one is happier than our family here at the Schuylkill Center.
By Mike Weilbacher
Learn more about the Boy Scout Tract at the Boy Scout Tract news page.