As a nationally accredited land trust, the Delaware Highlands Conservancy’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the terms of its conservation easements, set forth to permanently protect each property’s unique conservation values, are being upheld.
Through required annual property visits, communication with landowners, and good record-keeping, conservancies hope to reduce instances that have adverse effects on the protection of these properties. Occasionally, incidents do occur and the pertinent conservancy is obligated to take legal action.
During a walk on her property in April 2019, Helen Beichel, a landowner of a conserved property in Sullivan County, New York, discovered that a logger had crossed her well-marked property boundary, illegally cut down and removed 120 saw timber-grade trees, and destroyed a memorial site dedicated to the original property owner and donor of the conservation easement, Tom Raleigh.
The trees cut were primarily mature white oaks — not only the most valuable trees on the site, but also the most ecologically important for production of the food supply critical for wildlife habitat. In addition, the logger created roads across the property traversing wetlands and vernal pools and left mud-filled ruts across steep slopes, endangering the high-quality stream located nearby.
“I nearly fainted when I saw what had happened to my forest. How could good neighbors do this? When I saw they had utterly destroyed Tom’s memorial, I cried,” Beichel said in an announcement of the vandalism and theft. “If people are planning to do a logging job on their land, consult with a forester to do it sustainably. The forester will pay for themselves by making sure you are paid properly for your trees, property lines are respected, as well as making sure your forest will recover.”
Since this discovery was made, the Delaware Highlands Conservancy has worked in partnership with the landowner, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and legal counsel for restitution. In 2023, a settlement was reached between the Conservancy, the landowner, and the defendants in this case to provide remediation and restoration of the trees that were removed and to repay the Conservancy’s legal expenses in defense of this conservation easement.
The Conservancy was first contacted about this Sullivan County property in the mid-1990s by the original landowner, who wanted to permanently protect his cherished land for future generations.
Although Tom Raleigh passed away before he could conserve his land, his niece honored his wishes after she inherited the property and donated the land to the Conservancy in 2009. She also installed the memorial site that was destroyed during the timber theft, intended as a lasting tribute to the man who recognized the need to preserve this woodland.
In accordance with the donor’s wishes, the Conservancy then sold the property, protected with a conservation easement, to a conservation-minded buyer, Helen Beichel, in 2012. Since then, Beichel has cared for the property, including working with several natural resource professionals in an effort to enhance, further protect, and support a healthy and productive forested ecosystem.
As a nationally accredited land trust, the Conservancy is able to insure its easements through Terrafirma Risk Retention Group, which helps to cover the costs of any necessary legal defense.
The Delaware Highlands Conservancy works in partnership with landowners and communities to protect the natural heritage and quality of life of the Upper Delaware River region. For more information, call 570-226-3164/845-583-1010 or visit www.DelawareHighlands.org.
Photo provided by Delaware Highlands Conservancy.