Home / Blogs / 50 Stories: Blog by Former Staff Member, Sara Nicholas
March 5, 2021
When I joined the Pennsylvania Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay office in 1998, it was for three good reasons; I loved the mission, I was able to work part-time and pay a little more attention to my two growing daughters, and I got my hands in the dirt again. I had been working full-time for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C. as a grants officer, commuting three or four days a week for several years – a daily round trip of 240 miles – and, it seemed, I never saw the sun. The Alliance was all about engaging with partners and working directly with the land. It seemed like heaven.
Sara Nicholas is the current Policy Strategist at Pasa Sustainable Agriculture
The Pennsylvania office at that time consisted of four women in their early 40s, three with small children, and Brook Lenker – our signature guy. I shared an office with Brook, who is one of the nicest people you will ever meet or work with. With four women in the office, the Monday morning apres-weekend conversation naturally turned to home life and children. For some reason, we moms all talked about what terrible parenting practices we had engaged in that week or weekend. It almost became a one-upmanship event. We even positioned a “bad mom” chair in the office, so whoever told the saddest tale of parenting got to sit in the chair for a few minutes.
In general, we didn’t sit around a lot. I look over my timesheets from my Alliance days and wonder how we all did it. It was partner meetings by day, land trust meetings by night. We were planting riparian buffers, repairing gardens and trails, talking to local legislators, policymakers, farmers, starting new programs, and of course, writing new grants.
The two largest projects I worked on for the Alliance included a grant from the William Penn Foundation to strengthen the work, membership, and effectiveness of two watershed organizations – the Elk Creek Watershed Association and the Octoraro Watershed Association. Most of the members were at least 20 years older than I was and were very opinionated. The Elk Creek group had a coup d’etat within the first year I started advising them – and this wasn’t my advice! Nonetheless, we had many planning sessions, outside speakers, financial and environmental reviews, and soul-searching about growing and maintaining a strong local organization. The take-home lesson for me was that a small organization has to get along with each member and recruit new members, or it will fall apart, wear out, and be ineffective. Octoraro has gone on to prosper, modeling a new program of outreach to plain sect farmers, and do great conservation work over the years.
The second major project involved planting riparian forest buffers along streams in two plain-sect regions of Pennsylvania – Lancaster County’s Pequea-Mill Creek watershed that drains into the Conestoga River, and Mifflin County’s Kishacoquillas Creek valley, or the Big Valley, draining into the Juniata River.
Both had predominantly Amish and Mennonite farming communities and were under some pressure to improve water quality into these Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Both projects were different, fascinating, and rewarding. The Mifflin County effort involved partnering with Americorps and the county conservation district, with some additional help from the PA Department of Environmental Protection. We lined up about eight farms to receive plantings along their streams, and most of the farmers pitched in to help as well. After consulting with farmers and their families on what native tree species they wanted (crab apples were a regular request outside the kitchen window), we ordered the plants, recruited planting help, and got to work. One of my first questions became why it was so hard to dig holes for trees along the creeksides. Answer – that’s where farmers put the big rocks they wanted out of the middle of their fields! I spent many days near tears trying to dig through boulders to get even one-inch caliper seedlings in the ground. Not to mention getting shocked routinely by hot-wired fences or hitting ground-nesting wasp nests. One of the lessons learned from the Mifflin farm plantings was – don’t hire a landscape architect to help you! Our architect insisted we needed to order balled and burlapped trees – each weighing about 70 pounds – which of course, was less useful on a plain sect farm where we were lucky to have a small wagon to pull them across a farm field. I spent most of a day rolling giant trees under hot-wire fences and digging massive holes, by hand, to get them in the ground. Experience has taught me that a dibble bar and an 8-foot-high, two-caliper seedling can take about 2 minutes to plant and mulch. Those giant trees took 3 hours apiece.
The second most vivid memory of working in Mifflin County was the simple beauty of the place. I was en route to plant the day the planes hit the twin towers on 9/11, and seriously thought about how I could plant all day and ignore the news. I didn’t, but it was hard to drive back to reality.
The riparian tree planting work in Lancaster County was also colorful. Some of the farmers were keen about the project and asked many questions, brought their families to meet us, and always had gifts to offer in appreciation. They were interested in the plant species chosen, the bird habitat we might be creating, the result of the buffers on their streams, and potential fishing success. One family, the Fishers, invited my family to join them for an afternoon while I planted buffers. My daughters, then 8 and 10, paired up with Mr. Fisher’s daughters of the same age and spent an idyllic afternoon talking as they walked through the fields. I often wonder what each child thought of the other, but they only said they had fun getting to know each other. The Fisher girls used to bring me lemonade in a child’s wagon they pulled across the fields on hot days.
The lesson learned from the Lancaster plantings was perhaps obvious to many of you, but not to me at the time. The Alliance didn’t have its own fleet of work vehicles, so I had to bring my family station wagon to plantings, creating some merriment at my local gas station when the mechanics pulled hay out of my front grill every time I got an oil change. To get large volumes of seedings, tools, and other equipment to planting sites, I decided one year to rent a Uhaul. Loaded up with 400 trees, stakes, and tree tubes, I drove into a meadow and promptly got the Uhaul stuck for many hours. We had to drag the trees and tools through the mud to the site anyway.
The constant interactions with partners, landowners, local officials, interns, and students that made up the course of many Alliance projects have been great training for all that came next in my career. Learning to be creative and innovative on a small budget, improvising with cars and tools, learning that relationships are the most important aspect to make any project work out, have all been excellent lessons for me as I moved into policy work at DCNR and now the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture nonprofit. When Cindy Dunn, the first Pennsylvania Alliance director and for many years my boss at DCNR as Secretary of the agency, asked if we could start up a riparian buffer program with our team of state forestry staff, we already knew the answer – of course! When Cindy asked if I had ever had the courage to go back and look at some of the buffer projects I planted at the Alliance, I said yes, I had – and they were still alive and growing! She claims she doesn’t have the confidence to go check hers out, but I suspect they are thriving also. The Alliance was a magic time in my life that taught me so much about the natural world, and the world of relationships. I wish it all the best for the next 50 years!
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