surprises lead to learning for toner ’20

Katie Toner ’20 is a conservation easement steward at Heritage Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust based in southeastern Pennsylvania. Katie received her BA from Wesleyan in environmental studies and earth and environmental sciences.

You’ve been involved with environmental pursuits since you were a student at Wes, when you were part of Long Lane Farm, among other things. Tell us about your time at Long Lane Farm and how that experience influenced or enriched your time here at Wes!
I was first introduced to Long Lane Farm by my freshman-year RA, but it wasn’t until I joined Farm House in my sophomore year that I really became actively involved. Not to be dramatic, but being a part of the farm collective was really formative for both my friendships at Wes and my overall worldview in a way that is hard to put into words and almost too personal to try. Simply put, I’m really appreciative of the farm and all its people. I hope that Long Lane continues to thrive and be a place for experimentation and sharing.

Was there a class or a professor who piqued your interest in natural conservation as a professional path?
I would say that my interest in natural conservation work was piqued before coming to Wes, but some of the classes that I think about regularly at my job are Decolonizing Discourses with visiting professor Maria John, Environmental Philosophy with Elise Springer, The Economy of Nature and Nations with Paul Erickson, Living in a Polluted World with Johan (Joop!) Varekamp, The Forest Ecosystem with Helen Poulos, Intro to GIS with Kim Diver, and Anthropology of Food and Justice with Anu Sharma.

You are currently a conservation easement steward at Heritage Conservancy. Tell us about the organization and your role in it!
On a general level, Heritage Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust based in southeastern Pennsylvania whose mission is to protect the region’s historic and natural resources. On a more personal level, Heritage Conservancy is a team of about 20 staff and a large network of volunteers who get really excited about things like heron rookeries, box turtle habitat, and historic barns, who consequently want to do what they can to protect these things from being bulldozed for a new shopping mall or taken over by invasive species. 

As an accredited land trust, one of our primary tools for achieving these goals is a conservation easement. Conservation easements are legal agreements between a private landowner and a qualified organization(s), such as a land trust or local government. In the easement, the landowner agrees to do or not do certain activities on their land for the benefit of the land’s conservation values (i.e. to protect water and soil quality, maintain habitat space for wildlife, sequester carbon, provide scenic views and/or reduce development density). Restrictions might include limiting the amount and location of impervious surfaces, prohibiting extractive and non-agricultural commercial industries, and requiring that a landowner create a forest management plan before doing any major timber harvest on the property. Some landowners donate their conservation easement to the holder(s) (the land trust or government who agrees to enforce the easement), while others do it in exchange for the appraised difference in value of the land before and after it has an easement on it. Each easement is a little different depending on who wrote it, when, what the current owner’s goals were, and what piece of land they owned. The resulting easement stays with the land forever and can only be amended if the proposed changes result in an overall conservation gain. 

Katie TonerAs a Conservation Easement Steward, my job is to visit the lands subject to easements held by Heritage Conservancy, check for any changes to the land use that might threaten the conservation values of the land, and offer advice/resources for landowners to better care for their land. Often, this advice centers around how to deal with the decline of ash trees due to emerald ash borers, how to manage invasive species, and how to improve riparian buffers to protect water quality. I spend most of my time either walking around private lands taking notes and photos, filling out reports, or managing GIS data. Occasionally I get the chance to review forest management plans submitted for approval, write blog posts about topics like how to make pesto out of invasive garlic mustard, or help our nature preserve staff with workdays at Heritage Conservancy’s nature preserves.

My path to joining Heritage Conservancy was a surprising one, as I had not heard of this type of work before applying and I had not even been planning to look for work in my hometown until the pandemic hit. But with surprises comes learning, and I really benefited from all the opportunities that came to learn on the job.

What are you working on right now – and what are you most excited about?
I am particularly excited about two new projects at work: 1) coordinating new classes for easement landowners to learn from local conservation experts; and 2) facilitating several riparian buffer expansion projects. For many years, Heritage Conservancy has been able to provide landowners with help interpreting the legal jargon of their easements and/or point landowners in the direction of educational materials and recommended service providers. This year, I’m coordinating with some of Heritage Conservancy’s partners to host classes for landowners so that they can more easily improve upon the conservation values of their land, rather than just maintain the status quo. 

The second project that I am particularly interested in these days is actually a series of projects on different easement lands, one of which is already underway and several of which are in the early “groundwork” phase. On many easements there are special protections on the riparian buffer zone around waterways and wetlands, generally defined as 100 feet from the water or wetland’s edge. Typically, these special protections include prohibiting any tilling or exposure of bare soil in the riparian areas. Unfortunately, in some cases, the owner was already tilling within part of the riparian buffer zone at the time the easement was granted. In these cases, a compromise was usually struck that allowed the continued tilling practices so long as they weren’t expanded or intensified. Regardless of whether the easement condones the activity or not, agricultural fields that are too close to waterways and wetlands pose a risk to water quality. This year, I was able to work with a landowner to take about 2 acres of crop field out of production to better protect the high-quality stream flowing nearby. Using a combination of the owner’s funds and a bit of grant funding, 500+ trees were planted within that ~2-acre area this spring. At the end of the summer, the cover crop that was planted around the trees will be removed and reseeded with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers. With this riparian planting project successfully started, I have been talking with several other landowners about doing something similar on their land.

What advice do you have for Wes students considering an ENVS linked major?
To anyone in the process of choosing their major(s), my advice is to go with your gut and trust yourself to be able to adjust if you realize you need something different in the future. I think that the interdisciplinary nature of ENVS courses makes it easier to adjust and refine your interests and focuses as you learn, which makes the linked major a great addition to your primary major.

Can you share your favorite enviro-lit books everyone should read?
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin! These books are intense both in their depictions of the main characters’ challenges and in their detailed and unique world building. It’s gritty. It’s mysterious. It’s somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy. It handles race, gender, sexuality and age in a realistic and valuable way. It takes the earth-bending trope to a whole new level of detail. I just love the series and think it deserves every award it has won. Also The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler! Another great set of sci-fi books by a brilliant author. They were written in the 1990s, but set in the 2020s. We haven’t quite caught up with the story’s timeline, but Octavia Butler’s predictions of this future feel eerily accurate. There are a lot of important lessons to be learned from the books’ main character as we stare climate change in the face. Plus Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and anything written by Louise Erdrich!