With a history of conservation in Pennsylvania stretching back to the founder of Pennsylvania itself, it’s little wonder that the bucolic paradise of Chester County is so loved and protected. More than 30% of the county at the end of the Main Line of Philadelphia is protected space, with efforts continuing to secure the beauty of the region for future generations. (1)
An overview of the history of conservation in the region helps set a foundation of how long visioned an effort maintaining the natural beauty of the region has been and continues to be. Each season brings its own challenges when it comes to fostering the landscape, as well as its own ways to enjoy the beauty of the region. With so many public and private conservation organizations dedicated to maintaining and fostering the resource that is the natural beauty of the region, it comes as little surprise that there is so much to do with nature in Chester County.
Colonial and Post-Colonial Conservation
The first official law promoting conservation in Pennsylvania came from founder William Penn himself. In 1681, “Penn required that for every five acres of land cleared one acre of trees must be preserved”(2). The 341 years since then have continued in the precedent of that visionary mandate, with groups both public and private carrying the torch to maintain the region’s bucolic richness.
As with so much of the idealistic vision William Penn set forth for his territory, the tradition of conserving the natural landscape is foundational to Chester County’s identity. When the colonies rebelled, the spaces and fertile farmlands of the region provided for the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Years later, world-renowned naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon settled on the far side of that historic camp, with ready access (and comment) on the beauty of Chester County.
In the late 19th century, conservation of the region was so integral to its prosperity that agencies, both public and private, were formed for the specific purpose of conservation. The Division of Forestry was founded in 1895 to maintain all of Penn’s Woods (3), continuing the tone of commonwealth-level oversight of conservation efforts moving forward. The Chester County Department of Open Space Preservation was founded in 1989, further unifying and funding the county’s conservation goals. Over the years, that program has grown into the Chester County Departments of Open Space, and Parks + Preservation to better facilitate different aspect of conservation. (4, 5)
Since then, numerous private conservation organizations have forwarded the mission of regional conservation. Organizations have sprung up under multiple banners, often coalescing into larger conservatories with reach beyond the county’s borders. Many of the smaller conservators in Southern Chester County, for example, have recently banded together as the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance (6), while similar conservation efforts for the White Clay Creek are a part of the county’s Parks + Preservation program. (7).
Working to ensure the continued beauty of the Brandywine River, flowing through the heart of Chester County, a group of conservationists came together in the mid-20th century to found the Brandywine Conservancy, (8) an organization that now spans multiple states in its mission to conserve the natural beauty of the Brandywine River Valley. Inspired by the beauty captured in the art of the Wyeth family, the Conservancy maintains a museum and educational center on the grounds of the old Wyeth property along the Brandywine River itself in the heart of Chadds Ford.
Even organizations outside the county recognize the value of conserving its open space. One such organization, Natural Lands (9), holds large tracts of land within the county, including the largest privately owned nature preserve in Chester County, ChesLen Preserve (10) . Close to the heart of the county, the Stroud Preserve encompasses 571 acres of beautiful natural space.
Natural Lands, the Brandywine Conservancy, and the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance are but 3 of the numerous private conservancies throughout the region dedicated to the mission set forth by William Penn in those early colonial times.
Current Ways to Enjoy Nature in Chester County
All the conservation efforts throughout the years have a direct benefit for all of us today, and everyone who comes after us as well. With so much space protected in an environmentally sustainable way while also remaining productive communal space, there’s always something to do in nature in Chester County.
During the spring, visit the parks and watch as the entire countryside blooms vibrant yellow and pink, turning gently into verdant green to welcome the growing season. From the hilltops of Valley Forge National Historic Park, look out over the valleys and watch entire swaths of countryside bloom in a day. Fish the various protected, stocked, or wild streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers. Hunt through historic and protected woodland in the tradition of the region. (11) Climb and hike trails snaking along old rail lines, a reminder of the power for nature to revive.
As summer comes along, hop in a kayak in old locks and channels converted into urban-adjacent nature escapes in Phoenixville, or simply drift along on an inner tube along the Brandywine River. With biking, hiking, and equestrian trails connecting nearly everywhere throughout there’s little need for the intrepid adventurer to travel far to find something that piques their interest.
Throughout the golden days of summer, venture through the open expanses of protected farmland and watch as some of the oldest non-irrigated continuous use farmland (12) maintains that noble tradition on your way to any of the estimated 20,000+ acres of parks and recreation spaces (13).
Moving into autumn and cooler temperatures, the farmers markets liven up with harvest-time bounty, nearly every town has a fair or festival, and spooky treats come out of the woodwork for another season of fun. Kennett Square commemorates its role as the Mushroom Capitol of the World with its annual Mushroom Festival (14), and the beauty captured by the Wyeth family for generations settles across the landscape. Visit any of the family-friendly orchards, or adult-oriented breweries, and enjoy the bounty of the land.
Even as winter settles in, the natural beauty of the county continues to provide. When the countryside is blanketed in snow, the hills and trails of parks become sled and ski paths. When cold winds blow bitterly across the land, the greenhouses and conservation centers continue to educate the next generation. When it’s just downright cold, without snowy fun or hard enough of a freeze to skate across the lakes and ponds, travel the historic trails and get a glimpse of what life might have looked like back when William Penn set forth that first conservation law.
Every season, there are innumerable activities, parks, trails, and histories to explore throughout Chester County. In a generally temperate climate, many conservation centers operate year-round, offering services most suited to the season. Likewise, parks and outdoor recreation centers are usually open year-round, with seasonal community events and their own local traditions. With natural beauty abounding and ready access to multiple major metropolitan areas, Chester County truly is an amazing place to call home.
This Year's Conservation
This year has seen many historic funding allocations, grants, and opportunities for conservation in not only the county, but the commonwealth at large. Of the historic $90 million in state conservation funding this year, Chester County was awarded over $2.8 million for 6 projects. These awards came with an announcement of an unprecedented second round of grant applications aimed at “helping underserved communities, closing trail gaps, supporting an invigorated focus on the outdoor recreation sector, and planting trees along streams and in communities.” (15) Those interested in applying for this historic second round of conservation grants need to apply (16) before October 27, 2022.
As part of the same historic securement of state funds for conservation, three new state parks were announced at the end of September. (17.) Through Continuing the tradition of prioritizing conservation, Chester County has been announced as one of three counties to receive a new state park. Big Elk Creek in Franklin Township, a historically important transitway, is currently open for daytime use. Find out more about the newest state park in Chester County here.
The formation of Big Elk Creek State Park would not have been possible without the combined efforts of Chester County, private conservationists, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The commitment to conserving the region for future generations brought $3.2 million in open space preservation and park improvements (18), including the county’s contribution to the creation of the new state park. If you’re interested in volunteering with the local conservation effort, here is a great place to start.
TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)
Chester County’s natural beauty is an invaluable resource that has been maintained and fostered by countless hands through the generations since colonial settlement. With more than 30% of its total area now protected space, the efforts to maintain the bucolic majesty of the region continue to be strong. This year alone saw unprecedented grant allocations, the formation of a new state park, and a second round of grant applications. As trends continue and more people choose to live among nature, these continuing conservation efforts are more important than ever.