Fall Partnership Meeting Stressed Importance of Working Together

More than 50 attendees gathered on September 18 for the 2020 Fall Partnership Meeting, one of three annual regional meetings that are open for anyone to attend. New to the agenda were interactive breakout sessions to ensure an engaging meeting for attendees to interact with others throughout the region. Information collected will also inform the Program Subcommittee as it moves forward elements of the strategic plan to better understand the South Mountain Partnership’s (SMP) core audiences and needs. The meeting was recorded and is available on the South Mountain Partnership YouTube page.

The Fall Partnership Meeting kicked off with welcome messages from Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Cindy Dunn and Franklin County Commissioner Dave Keller. Secretary Dunn thanked individuals and organizations in the audience for keeping up their great conservation and preservation work during the pandemic and provided words of honor for Mike Eschenmann, the Internal Lead for the SMP, for helping to found and lead the Partnership over the past fourteen (14) years. “He serves as a mentor and is a quiet hero, one of those ‘glue people’ who holds things together behind the scenes. I want to salute him as he enters retirement.”

Keller thanked everyone in the partnership for their work and encouraged attendees to continue their great work. He also highlighted one silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that families and people of all ages from within and outside the region are discovering for the first time or rediscovering our great landscape and that it’s an opportunity for us all to engage them in our conservation and preservation efforts.

He said, “When I think about the work of the Partnership these days, the two words that keep coming back to me are relevance and opportunity…These are tough times but I am excited about what is happening with our landscape and our future. I think that our landscape is [now] more relevant than it has been for a lot of folks and that creates a tremendous opportunity for us in the Partnership to engage them and help them gain greater enjoyment for it and get in touch with the history, culture, and agriculture and understand how it all fits together.”

DCNR lead for the SMP, Mike Eschenmann, had a few minutes to thank everyone for the amazing accomplishments that have happened over his tenure – “It’s been a blast!” – and turn the reins over to Tyler Semder, given Mike’s retirement in October. Eschenmann said, “Tyler is a ‘git ‘er done’ kind of guy and moves with the speed of light…so I want everyone to support him as he takes over this crucial role at DCNR.”

“These are shoes that I can’t fill,” said Semder, as he introduced himself as the new DCNR Internal Lead to the SMP. “I have a passion, energy, and love for this landscape. I am what you would call a topophiliac, where you suffer from an extreme love of place, and I think that’s something all South Mountain Partnership people suffer from.” Semder gave an overview of his diverse professional experience in both the public and private sectors and his hobbies as an avid outdoorsman and musician.

Katie Hess, Director of SMP, provided additional words of gratitude for Mike’s work and mentorship and provided updates regarding how to get more involved through the newly launched Friends of the South Mountain Partnership, the Partner Support Letter, and by joining a committee.

Next, attendees were placed in virtual breakout groups with facilitators pulled from SMP committees members. The information gathered during will help the Program Subcommittee to better understand core audiences of the SMP and to assess ways to better align the SMP mission and programs with those needs, work called for by the 2018-2021 Strategic Action Plan.

David Lilliard, Coordinator for the Heart of Maryland and Executive Director of the Catoctin Land Trust, the conservation landscape to our south across the Maryland line, spoke about how his conservation landscape is developing a communications and messaging toolkit that can be used by both the Heart of Maryland and customized by each organization participating in it. The toolkit originated through the Appalachian Trail Landscape Partnership and he used it to create ‘value statements’ that create a ‘narrative arc’ to deliver a focused message to public about why they should care.

Ezra Thrush, Director of Government Affairs for PennFuture, discussed how to advocate for continued investment in the ongoing conservation and preservation work happening throughout the South Mountain landscape, particularly through these trying pandemic and politicly polarized times. He discussed PennFuture’s Green Stimulus and Recovery plan – “this green stimulus and recovery platform lays out an agenda to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s homegrown sustainable industries—nature-based, outdoor tourism, agriculture, and renewable energy businesses—to put people back to work as well as rebuild a more equitable economy through the lens of sustainability and clean energy.”

The plan encourages decision makers and the state legislature to support investing in a sustainable recovery. Thrush also spoke about potential state budget cuts this fall and winter that could exacerbate the financial state of conservation and preservation agencies and organizations, including the South Mountain Partnership and many of its Partners, such as municipalities, counties, water authorities, County Conservation Districts, farmland preservation programs and land trusts, recycling programs, non-profits, and academic institutions.

Thrush was joined by Andrew Loza, Executive Director for We Conserve PA, formerly known as the PA Land Trust Association. Loza said one thing that partners and people should do to help address the potential state budget cuts is to meet with their legislator (find your legislator here) and request that special funds, like the Environmental Stewardship Fund and Keystone Fund, be left alone so that conservation and preservation in the South Mountain region and throughout the state can continue. Legislators don’t need to take any new actions, he added, and shouldn’t change the current ways in which environmental work is being paid.

“This is a very dangerous time. The worst I’ve seen in at least 20 years. They need to hear from their constituents on how important this is to them.” Loza added that changes would be especially harmful for the South Mountain landscape, since the region has no alternative funding source for conservation or preservation and does not have large donors or foundations in place to provide financial support.

A follow-up email and survey will be distributed to meeting attendees. We look forward to seeing everyone this winter for the 10th Annual “Power of the Partnership” Year End Celebration to be held on January 29 from 8:30am – 10:30am. Save the date! Formal invitations and registration will be sent to those who receive the ‘Around South Mountain’ e-Newsletter; sign up on the bottom of our homepage.

Those who wish to sign up for the PennFuture newsletter can do so here.

Those who wish to sign up for the WeConservePA newsletter can do so here.

Those who wish to sign up for the Heart of Maryland or Catoctin Land Trust newsletter can do so here.