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Meet The Faces: Our Stewardship Team

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Our Stewardship Team

Feature photo (left to right):
Jack Duffus – Glen Leven Farm Steward
Mike Szymkowicz – Stewardship Manager
Sarah O’Rear – Director of Stewardship
Mija Nichols – Stewardship & Conservation Coordinator

For our team, the most exciting part of a conservation project arguably is ‘the closing’: the completion and accompanying celebration of land permanently protected. Over the years we’ve shared joyful tears and laughter, family dinners, and always relish our tradition of ringing the triangle dinner bell in celebration at our Land Trust offices.

However, once these agreements are finalized and a project is “closed”, that is where the true commitment of it all begins – and where our Stewardship Team steps in. Meet the team members who help uphold our promise to forever protect the places we call home…

Meet Our Stewardship Team

Q: What does your typical day look like?

  • Mike – A normal day consists of working with landowners to ensure the terms of the conservation easement are being followed – that could include anything from passing along the contact information of a professional forester to discussing something observed on their property during a recent visit.
  • Mija – Each year, we visit every property we’ve conserved to make sure the land is being protected in the way we agreed with the landowners. During this ‘monitoring season’, I’m scheduling visits with landowners, updating GIS maps, and entering report information into our database. Throughout the rest of the year, I assist the team in answering conservation questions and keeping our records clean and up-to-date.
  • Sarah – There is no average day for me, which certainly keeps things exciting!

Q: What takes place during the annual visit to a protected property?

  • Mike – We always start with a phone call to the landowner to plan a visit because we want to meet with them while on the land. Once we arrive, our goal is to see as much of the land as possible.
  • Sarah – We observe and document any changes over the past year, talk about any plans the landowner might have, and really just catch up since the last visit. Some of my visits are mostly chatting around the kitchen table.
  • Mike – Having a good idea of the landowner’s goals and future plans is a great way to prevent potential issues on conserved land.
  • Mija – After walking the property, talking with the landowner, and taking photos, the monitoring visit is complete! We’ll reach out to the landowner if any follow-up is needed.

Q: How do you help owners of conserved land beyond the annual visits?

  • Mija – We strive to keep an open line of communication between us and our landowners in order to foster a life-long relationship.
  • Mike – The landowners are the day-to-day stewards of their land. So we do our best to quickly answer any questions they might have pertaining to their easement.
  • Sarah – We also connect landowners to service providers, such as foresters or their local NRCS office to apply for financial or technical assistance to improve their farming operations. We help landowners trying to sell their property by explaining the easement terms to potential buyers. We really do try to help our landowners out in any way that we can.

Q: Jack, how does your role tackle stewardship as it relates to Glen Leven Farm, a property which The Land Trust actually owns and operates?

  • It’s my responsibility to maintain and care for the historic 65-acre farm. As one of the few properties The Land Trust actually owns and operates, we have a direct role in the short- and long-term stewardship of Glen Leven.
  • The farm is mostly pasture land that we use for cattle and our miniature donkeys, but we also have a vegetable garden managed by The Hermitage Hotel, a honey bee sanctuary, an educational garden for field trips and public programs, and a 1.5-mile hiking trail. I manage these areas and make sure that we are abiding by the mission of both The Land Trust and the will of Susan West, who donated the farm to us. I help ensure that all of our activity on the farm contributes to those missions so it can be protected forever and available as a resource for future generations.

Q: What do you find is the biggest misperception about the work you do?

  • Sarah – …that we want to control or tell a landowner how to manage their land, operations, and so forth.
  • Mija – …interested landowners wanting to “put their land in the Trust”, when in fact, they remain the owners of their land.
  • Mike – These misperceptions tend to bleed into the stewardship realm and possibly lead people to believe that we are the managers of protected land. Although we must ensure conservation easements are being followed, landowners still retain the right to manage the land the way they want to, so long as it fits within the conservation easement.
  • Mija – Mike’s right. Our goal is to be a resource for landowners.

Our Stewardship Team understands that the decision to conserve one’s land forever is not to be taken lightly or for granted – which is why their work with landowners is more than replying to an email or checking a list every year. It’s building relationships.

After all, without those who care for the land in the first place, none of this good work would be possible.

Your support fuels our commitment to protect conserved land for years to come. Please consider a gift to support conservation in both our communities and wild, open spaces across Tennessee.