Christina Smith had a price for preserving her 70 acres of forest and farmland in District Township: no hunting and save the stone fences.

Those were her main requirements as she worked with Berks Nature to preserve the land along Treichler Road in what is called the Oley Hills. They sealed the deal in November.

She donated the value of the easement.

The easement legal work was financially supported by the Pine Creek Valley Watershed Association, WeConservePA and Exelon Corp. through the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund. Exact figures were unavailable.

"We are all absolutely thrilled and delighted," said Ingrid Morning, who leads the volunteer Pine Creek Valley Watershed Association in Oley. "I hope she realizes what gift it is to the community."

The impact of the easement will reach beyond the borders of the township and last well past her lifetime because her property includes wetlands in the watershed of the West Branch of the Perkiomen Creek.

WeConservePA says conservation easement limits certain uses of the land to advance one or more conservation objectives while keeping the land in the owner’s control. 

The Oley Hills serve as home to six pristine watersheds that have received statewide recognition as "exceptional value," the highest water-quality designation awarded in Pennsylvania.

The protection of these six watersheds represents nearly half of the exceptional value watersheds in the entire Schuylkill River Watershed.

According to Berks Nature, the high water quality is attributed to the land being undeveloped, and it is a goal to maintain this status by permanently protecting the land with conservation easements, municipal outreach, and best management practices for land and water.

"Protecting forested watersheds is an investment in drinking water security, and the Smith property contributes to advancing this goal," said Berks Nature President Kim Murphy. "Located in the watershed of the West Branch of the Perkiomen Creek, the Smith property protects land upstream of the Aqua PA Green Lane Reservoir in Montgomery County."

The Oley Hills in District, Pike and Rockland townships is one of the largest intact forested areas in Berks County at 27,144 acres.

It is in the Schuylkill Highlands Conservation Landscape. The area is a state priority and is federally designated with importance by the Highlands Conservation Act.

With 18 occurrences on the PA Natural Heritage Program's inventory of species of concern, it is the most biologically diverse area in Berks.

Much of that wildlife habitat exists across privately owned forests and farmlands.

Attached to the land

Smith will continue to live on the land she's known for most of her 75 years, where she sets bird feeders and bat boxes and walks daily. 

"I've always loved animals," said Smith on a recent walk before a snowfall.

She noted seasonal and other changes.

"Just before spring, … I counted 30-40 praying mantis (pods)," she said.

Approaching a stone row, she stopped to discuss its structure and how it had weathered the years.

Smith surmised it may have been created by Colonial-era farmers as they cleared rocks from the field. Maybe they used it to divide fields.

It's not on a property line. Such rows are found in other areas of the Oley Valley, said Sarah Chudnovsky, Berks Nature land protection specialist.

Some researchers believe the rows might be older than Colonial times and may have been made by Native Americans as ritual sites.

For Smith, the stone row provides shelter for animals like chipmunks, scads of praying mantises and a place for moss to grow. The rows give her land character and a sense of safety.

"I want a place for wildlife to have a haven," she said. "A place they can get away."

Smith said she was the kind of kid who would bury a bird beneath a little cross. Now she is the kind of adult who carves out a bit of her fixed income to feed starving deer.

Smith, a former instructional aide at Andrew Maier Elementary School, said she wouldn't normally feed deer but she did put out corn when snowfalls left them unable to find even scraps.

Lands at risk

Smith said she sees development encroaching and noted its effects. She's seen the wild turkeys diminish and the ruffed grouse disappear.

Her section of the township is zoned for conservation and allows a single home on 3 acres. Smith worried a developer might want to cut down her 30-some acres of forest.

"If someone came in and cut all the trees and they put houses, where would all these species go?" Smith said.

Chudnovsky said private forests are at risk in the state, in part because their owners are getting older. 

According to Penn State University, the average age of Pennsylvania's forest landowners is 57, indicating an unprecedented transfer of forest ownership will take place in the next decade. At least 80% of these owners intend to leave their forestland as a legacy to their heirs or other beneficiaries. Only 40% have actually discussed a legacy plan; fewer have a plan in place.

"Unfortunately, forests are most at risk for conversion and loss when land transfer takes place," wrote Penn State's Center for Private Forests.

The threats include development, subdivision and conversion to nonforest uses, forced sale or timber or land sale to pay large estate taxes.

When Smith was working with Berks Nature, senior ecologist Larry Lloyd walked the land with her. He pointed out things she had not noticed: the sound of a cuckoo and a large patch of turtlehead, a rare cardinal flower.

The turtlehead (also known as Chelone) could be one of the largest patches in the county. It is a perennial that looks like snapdragon. It grows in clumps and blooms in the fall with flowers that resemble a turtle's beak.

"My parents bought this property in 1956 and they've always wanted it to be kept as a farm property, and our family wanted it to be here for the wildlife," Smith said. 

Protecting forests and farmland can help communities adapt to a changing climate.

Healthy soil, especially from organic and regenerative farming methods, sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and pulls it back into the land, according to Berks Nature.

The soils of the Oley Valley are some of the highest quality in the country, and protecting them now ensures the future of our food systems, the group says. 

Smith has also decided to protect her land in her will, providing for it to go a conservation organization when she dies. For now, though, she will continue to walk the woods.

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