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Land Trust a true champion of area’s environment COMMENTARY Michael A. MacDowell

WHEN MY wife, Tina, and I moved to this area 11 years ago, we thought we had found our own little piece of paradise. The people we met were warm and welcoming and the region’s natural beauty was simply stunning.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of Northeastern Pennsylvania has been that people here take immense pride in the region’s environment. They feel a strong attachment to their communities, neighbors and the rolling hillsides, mountains, streams and forests that separate this region from most others. Residents also want to maintain and preserve that beauty for new and old friends alike.

There’s no doubt that this spirit of thoughtful conservation was the impetus for the establishment in 1994 of the North Branch Land Trust (NBLT). Headed by community leaders, the NBLT is dedicated to maintaining Northeastern Pennsylvania’s open spaces for this generation and those to come. Working cooperatively with neighbors, contributors and government, the organization has conserved more than 8,600 acres in eight counties and adds about 1,000 acres every year.

These accomplishments are commendable, but it’s the partnerships the NLBT has formed that make it unique. The trust uses public and private funds it receives to purchase and protect open space while often making these lands available for hiking, biking, nature walks, fishing and occasionally hunting. The trust also works with private landowners to employ innovative conservation easements that protect these lands in perpetuity and improve the quality of life in surrounding communities.

The net result is that land can be preserved through cooperation rather than public fiat and draconian zoning regulations that serve few well.

One of my earliest memories of growing up in Los Angeles as a third-generation Californian was how our neighbors vehemently protested “newcomers” who were moving into a subdivision close to my family home. My father found the protests to be ironic. Most of the people who spoke against our new neighbors had lived in the neighborhood themselves for only two or three years and many of them were also new to the Golden State. This kind of fervent protectiveness and not-in-my-backyard approach to land conservation inevitably leads to a hodgepodge of zoning regulations and ordinances that pit neighbor against neighbor and preserve little land.

The NBLT takes a much different approach. Through its well-conceived conservancy easement program, land stewardship efforts and novel thinking, the trust helps set aside scenic and environmentally sensitive property without forcing the abdication of individual property rights.

The trust also has championed the recycling of blighted land by working collaboratively with municipalities and others in reclaiming land once scarred by our coal mining past. Today, the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs and many commercial buildings and industrial parks sit atop land that was recovered from our anthracite heritage or former landfills.

This same ingenuity has been applied to supporting communities and organizations that reuse existing structures and put them to new uses. Misericordia University recently purchased the historic Frontier Communications Corp. building on Lake Street in Dallas to renovate it into the new College of Health Sciences. Similarly, Wilkes University recycled a vacant call center in the heart of downtown Wilkes-Barre; King’s College rehabilitated the former Margarida Apartments into Alumni Hall; Luzerne County Community College is getting ready to transform the Kanjorski building into a suite of classrooms and Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s main building was once the Conyngham farm in Lehman. All these worthwhile community projects involved recycling existing structures rather than building new ones.

NBLT’s approach holds great promise as our region begins to reap the economic benefits of natural gas locked in the Marcellus Shale formation. With the careful and thoughtful leadership of NBLT and others, the region can realize the economic benefits of gas exploration while also maintaining our natural beauty.

NBLT is doing the right thing by preserving our environment. It is also correctly using conservation easements and other innovative approaches to benefit longtime residents and those of us who have only recently been fortunate enough to call this lovely place home.

Working cooperatively with neighbors, contributors and government, the

organization has conserved more than 8,600 acres in eight counties …

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