Lessons from Sycamore's History
Sycamore Land Trust's early years: Milestones and lessons learned
by Abby Henkel, Communications Director
This article originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Twig, our member newsletter. To see a PDF of the print version, more articles, and past issues, click here.
Do you remember your 30th birthday? (Apologies if you haven’t had yours yet.) For most of us, our 30th birthday feels like a momentous occasion, a symbolic transition from youth into greater maturity. You might have a big party, go on a trip, or do all your favorite activities. You look back at your life so far, the choices you’ve made, and the person you have become.
This year, Sycamore turns 30. Our plans for big public celebrations this summer and fall were turned on their heads when the pandemic hit (see back cover for info about our new plans!). But the opportunity to reflect on our progress and aspirations remains with us. Earlier this year it hit me that for all the times I’ve said “founded in 1990” in over four years on the job, I knew almost nothing about those early days. I wasn’t even sure what moment counted as our official founding.
So in honor of Sycamore’s 30th birthday, I set out on a quest to interview some founders and early board members. I wanted to dig deep into Sycamore’s history to learn about the hurdles they faced and the decisions they made. They took risks, learned lessons, and oversaw great victories for land preservation. In learning from their experiences and carrying these lessons on to future leaders, we can continue the great legacy of success that Sycamore’s founders set in motion.
What follows here is a new sort of cover article for The Twig. First is a timeline of major moments in Sycamore’s early history. Following that are lessons and memories gathered from my talks with some of Sycamore’s early leaders. Sprinkled throughout are historical photos and old documents that bring these recollections to life.
Many thanks to the individuals who took the time to share their thoughts for this project: Mike Baker, Christian Freitag, Dave Hudak, Terry Marbach, Bill McCoy, Barbara Restle, Ed and Lise Schools, Ruth and Scott Sanders, Joan ten Hoor, and Tom Zeller. Each conversation was fascinating, and every person was so humble about her or his impact on Sycamore. I wish I’d had time to interview every person who had an influence on our early days. Even more, I wish I could interview everyone who has been a part of Sycamore in any way, whether as a founding member or a stewardship volunteer, a kindergartener in an environmental education program or a hiker visiting a preserve on their own one quiet morning. Each of you is a part of the Sycamore community. Sycamore wouldn’t be what it is today without all of us.
All I can say is thank you!
Late 1980s: Searching for a way to save a donut
Neighbors convinced Larry and Theresa Bowling to donate a 38-acre parcel on the east side of Bloomington for conservation, instead of developing it. However, there was no organization available to accept the permanent responsibility of owning and managing the property as a nature preserve. Sassafras Audubon Society agreed to hold the land until a new conservation organization could be formed to take it. The land was called “the donut” because the house on the property had been carved out of the middle of the parcel, which ended up resembling a delicious bakery treat from overhead. Eventually, it would become known as the Heritage Woods Preserve (pictured at the top of this post).
1988: Quality Growth Group
Tom Zeller and Mary Kay Rothert, well-known environmental activists in the area who had already worked on several important projects, gathered with four other Bloomington residents to form this group in response to what they saw as rapid growth in the city, lack of protection for green spaces, and lack of a master plan to guide development decisions. They issued a report calling for protection of green spaces in the master plan then being developed, recognition by the Bloomington Department of Parks and Recreation of the value of green spaces, and the creation of a nonprofit land trust.
1989: Let’s make a land trust
Tom Zeller sent a letter to 20 fellow environmentalists with the heading above. They gathered at a building across from Bloomington Hospital, founding member Dave Hudak recalled. He still has the letter. “Tom was a visionary,” said Dave in a phone interview. “Still is. He not only brought the group together, but he did the first dirty work that nobody wanted to do, which was getting us established as a nonprofit. So he did that himself.”
1989: How we got the name Sycamore Land Trust
Dave Hudak suggested the name because he said, according to former board member Lise Schools, “when I think of southern Indiana, I think of these big sycamore trees.” Mary Blizzard designed the logo, which remains only moderately tweaked today.
1990: The Twig emerges
According to Lise Schools, original editor of Sycamore’s official newsletter, The Twig was started to keep in touch with donors and volunteers before nonprofit status was achieved, “because we couldn’t do much else.” They couldn’t accept donations, and thus couldn’t buy land yet. The newsletter was unceremoniously but fittingly named for the font used in the masthead, and originally printed on the Schools family’s dot matrix printer. Joan ten Hoor became the editor for about two decades when Lise and Ed moved to Michigan in the late 90s.
1990: Official legal status achieved
Sycamore became a legal entity when it was incorporated in the State of Indiana in 1990. Lise’s husband Ed Schools then led the lengthy and frustrating process to get IRS certification as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. As Lise told me, “our IRS agent really didn’t want us to succeed…she was the only person Ed ever hung up on.” It wasn’t until a board member contacted Senator Dick Lugar’s office that the application received a fair reading and was accepted, and Sycamore was finally able to accept tax-deductible donations in 1992.
A land trust movement:
In 1990, there were nearly 900 land trusts in the US. As of the most recent land trust census (2015), that number has risen to 1,363. Not all land trusts are like Sycamore. Some are stateiwde, some protect land around one mountain or creek. Some offer job training for high-schoolers; some provide no environmental education. Out west there is much more focus on conservation easements, while other land trusts do strictly fee title (outright ownership, which is the majority of Sycamore’s protected acreage).
1991: “Save the dirt”
Coined by Dave Hudak, this motto became a motivating refrain for the early leaders of Sycamore. Remember what your ultimate goal is: to save the dirt. As Tom Zeller explained, “you can’t un-save it. Once it’s paved, it’s gone.”
1993: 100 acres protected
Dave Hudak exploring a new Beanblossom Creek acquisition in the early 1990s.
1994: Beanblossom Bottoms begins
Barbara Restle owned about 120 acres of farmland and forest in northwestern Monroe County, and in 1990 she donated 78 of those acres to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. Four years later, she gave over 40 acres to Sycamore. The Restle Natural Area became Sycamore’s first parcel at what is now Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve.
“We have so much woods around here that I think people assume it’ll always be there. But we have less than we used to. Save the dirt while you can. To me, there’s a sense of urgency about it, because I do see it gradually eroding away. Everything we can save now is something we can’t save later.”
1994: Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge
When Dave Hudak worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service in ecological services, he visited land near the Patoka River with a State district biologist and got lost. He remembers thinking, “you can’t do that much in Indiana anymore. So I wanted to make it a refuge. Everybody said you couldn’t do it, but we got it done.” I asked how he got past all the hurdles. He laughed: “with great difficulty.”
Under Dave’s tireless leadership, a small committee of dedicated supporters worked hard to save about 6,000 acres to establish the Refuge. In 2012, Sycamore added over 1,000 acres to the Refuge through the acquisition of Columbia Mine, which Sycamore owns and the Refuge manages. This project helped raise broader awareness of Sycamore and enhance our credibility as a regional conservation group capable of handling complex projects and moving quickly. Since then, Sycamore has undertaken several more acquisitions projects to help expand the Refuge to its current footprint of nearly 9,000 acres.
The heron rookery at Habitat for Herons, 1995.
1995: Habitat for Herons
This 80-acre parcel was Sycamore’s first outright purchase of land in the Beanblossom Creek area. It involved the board’s largest fundraising campaign up to that time, which they completed several years ahead of schedule. The land was beloved for its special great blue heron rookery and other ecological features, including diverse wetland vegetation and documentation of every frog and toad species known to exist in south-central Indiana, according to observations by Sycamore volunteers and a DNR biologist in 1991.
2000: First employee hired
Many founding members described this decision as one of the biggest steps forward for the young land trust. Upon the advice of the Land Trust Alliance and the board’s own research on the growth of land trusts that had paid staff versus ones that didn’t, the board sought funding from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and other funders to hire a part-time Development Director. Christian Freitag became Sycamore’s first employee, later becoming Executive Director and leading until his departure in 2018 to lead the Conservation Law Center. As Joan ten Hoor told me, “it’s almost incomprehensible to me that Sycamore now employs seven full-time staff, because I remember with what trepidation we hired our first employee.”
“What the founders and early supporters did in the ten years before I arrived should be looked at as the most important work Sycamore has ever done…And the people were lovely. They clearly had joy for southern Indiana and hope for what the organization could be. It was also like a family. It felt that way. I learned a lot from the culture they’d established, and always tried to keep it intact as we continued to grow later on. The early meetings I attended were at people’s homes. That says something about where land trusts’ power resides, I think.”
Nancy Ralston standing on the land she donated to Sycamore.
2002: First donation over 100 acres
The Nancy C. Ralston Forest Preserve, donated by Nancy Ralston, became Sycamore’s first land gift over 100 acres. A rugged forest dominated by oak trees, this 104-acre Monroe County preserve continues to be an important piece of protected land in the Beanblossom Creek and White River watersheds.
An Environmental Education program with Needmore Elementary School in Bedford, 2006.
2005: Environmental education
Board member and retired teacher Carroll Ritter founded Sycamore’s Environmental Education program. When the idea to add the program was originally discussed, some board members questioned whether education was relevant to the land trust’s mission to preserve and restore habitat. But as Terry Marbach explained when he was recalling that discussion, “it educates the next generation.” Joan ten Hoor remembered how Carroll hit the ground running after the decision was made – going to schools, recruiting teachers to collaborate with, developing programs, and finding national organizations to work with. Now, our Environmental Education program led by Shane Gibson reaches thousands of people every year through programs and events for all ages.
Cedar Crest, spring 2008, by John Lawrence.
2007: Cedar Crest
Lynton and Helen Caldwell were supporters of Sycamore since the beginning. Following their wishes after Lynton had died and Helen had moved out, their children Elaine and Ned helped complete the donation of the family’s beautiful home in Bloomington to Sycamore Land Trust to be our headquarters. Elaine continues to serve Sycamore as a board member; Ned passed away in 2019.
Before settling into our permanent home at Cedar Crest, Sycamore had its first office in donated space at the Showers building in downtown Bloomington. Our office now sits on 12 acres of protected land and is just down the street from Sycamore’s first acquisition, the 38-acre “donut.”
2019: 10,000 acres protected
John Lawrence and Susan Haislip Daleke proudly displaying the certificate they worked so hard to earn from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission
2019: Land Trust accreditation
It’s not exactly considered “the early years,” but someday it will be! And Sycamore’s achievement of the highest national standards of conservation excellence and permanence represents decades of hard work. It wouldn’t have been possible without the intense commitment and careful planning that Sycamore’s founders put into this organization. And we wouldn’t be able to keep up this hard work without the continued support of our members!
An important part of studying history is gleaning lessons to carry forward. Sycamore’s early board members developed so much expertise about how to run a successful land trust. I wanted to make sure the knowledge stays with Sycamore so that we can continue to add to it and pass it on to future leaders. Here are some bits of advice they offered in our conversations.
Diversify your group of leaders.
Every person I spoke to emphasized this point. By Tom’s account, the early team members were all “tree huggers.” But they realized they needed to expand their scope to include more diversity of life experiences and specific skills in nonprofit management. Sycamore continues to strive for a board and staff that represent more diversity of age, gender, race, location, and education/experience.
A group of long-time volunteers, donors, and staff toured the rebuilt boardwalk at Beanblossom Bottoms shortly before it reopened in May 2019.
I don’t think she meant to do this, but when Joan ten Hoor was telling me about the board’s careful decision-making process, she kept mentioning the big risks they would take on. Now that Sycamore has a $1 million budget and 10,070 acres protected, it’s easy to forget how intimidating those first land deals must have felt. The board had to ask themselves: will Sycamore be around in ten years to follow through on this promise? How about 100 years? But those risky decisions, based on immense preparation and solid financial footing, were necessary in order to make progress.
Terry recalled a board meeting at which Andy Rogers brought a lively discussion to silence with this reminder: “You understand that ‘forever’ means a long, long time, right?” As Terry explained to me, “When somebody donates a piece of land, they’re trusting that Sycamore is going to take care of that land forever. That’s a pretty sacred, momentous commitment.”
Include your elders.
“Don’t discount the contributions of people who are now really old!” Joan offered when I asked for advice. “Sometimes I think that can kind of fall into the background and not be taken seriously. But that’s where your history is.” If this project to track Sycamore’s early history has taught me anything, it’s that the movements and institutions I take for granted wouldn’t exist without the hard work, often against great odds, of people who stepped up decades ago. I now have the pleasure of working alongside a strong team of colleagues in a beautiful mid-century modern house (when we aren’t working from home in a pandemic!). But 30 years ago, Sycamore was a collection of volunteers who gave up nights, weekends, and lots of personal resources to get this fledgling group off the ground.
A great egret at Eagle Slough Natural Area | Steve Gifford
Terry says the board’s commitment to focusing on work that was “really germane to land protection” was a critical key to success in the early years. Every nonprofit begins with a purpose to fulfill a community need that’s not currently being met. As I learned in many of these interviews, so many landowners came out of the woodwork wanting to protect the land they loved, now that Sycamore existed. Before then, there were few options for private individuals to permanently protect habitat in southern Indiana. By sticking to the pursuit of this mission, an all-volunteer board could put all the resources they had into achieving the goal.
This work is rooted in love.
While many of the people I spoke with expressed their love for nature and the work of Sycamore in beautiful ways, I think these words from Christian Freitag sum it up well: “Remember where the strength lies. Stay tethered to love. The strength of Sycamore is all rooted in love. The love of people for their land. The love of people for their ancestors, and their children. The love of sunrises and butterflies and family picnics under a shady tree. Those are the feelings that motivate people to protect their land or to support Sycamore financially. Tax deductions and things like that are all sidenotes. Don’t get lost in the weeds. Stay connected to love.”
You have to be strategic.
The board experienced a shift in the group’s mindset about 15 years ago. In Sycamore’s beginning, they would accept most any land that came along. This was due in part to the realities of a young, small nonprofit trying to get off the ground (pun intended, heh heh) as well as the sincere urge to protect any bit of nature that could be saved. But as the board tackled more projects and the name Sycamore Land Trust grew in prominence, it became clear that some projects would have more conservation impact than others.
As our early staff members advised at one lengthy board meeting, 100 one-acre parcels are vastly more complicated to manage and less ecologically important than one 100-acre parcel, creating potential problems for future leaders. Terry Marbach recalled that board meeting, somewhere around 2005, when this topic was discussed in detail. It ended in a directive to be more focused and strategic with each land acquisition.
An Environmental Education hike with Edgewood Intermediate School students at Beanblossom Bottoms in 2006, and a photo from approximately the same location in 2019. Notice how much the landscape changed in 13 years!
Don’t assume the places you love will always be there.
This lesson has motivated Tom Zeller for decades. The breadth of environmental activism he has undertaken is inspiring to me. It’s no wonder he offered this piece of advice as one of his key take-aways. Terry Marbach also touched on this, pointing out that all the national parks we love were protected not because someone in Congress thought they were important, but often because a group of local residents loved the natural features and spoke up to ensure they were protected. If you want to see something done, go out and do it before it’s too late. As Dave Hudak said at board meetings, let’s save the dirt now while we still can.
Keep a strong balance sheet.
It’s probably no surprise that longtime board treasurer Terry Marbach gave this advice. “Nonprofits usually get in trouble because they don’t have a strong enough balance sheet when adversity comes along,” he told me. Building up at least one year’s cash reserves provides stability for the organization should something unpredictable – a pandemic, say – come along that impacts normal cash-flow. It also provides confidence to funders and partners, and helps staff focus on fulfilling Sycamore’s mission. From the beginning, Sycamore’s board members took their responsibility for the organization’s longevity very seriously, and that proved worthwhile.
Be adaptable but remember your roots.
As conservation science and technology develop, some best practices will change. Ed Schools pointed out how important it is to stay true to your core mission while adapting to current times. “The organization has to make changes to stay relevant,” he said.
The topographical map on which Dave Hudak kept track of every land project Sycamore undertook during his time on the board.
Continually earn the community’s trust.
“It’s all in the name,” Ed told me while reflecting on the leap of faith land donors must take when handing over their land to Sycamore. “The only way to preserve your property forever is to live forever. Given that you probably can’t do that, there has to be a level of trust with the organization, that you trust us to do this. You have to be willing to take that jump. We will do our best to always maintain your property.”
While the timeline shows major milestones in Sycamore’s growth, the past 30 years have been filled with thousands of moments that make up Sycamore’s history. The leaders I spoke with shared many fond memories; here are a few that might make you smile.
“At one of the first meetings, I remember that we literally passed around a hat—it might have been Henry Gray’s or Dave Hudak’s—to collect money for postage and a P.O. box.”
“Our daughter Molly was born during this time. There was this land deal that was a long ordeal for Ed in particular. It was a nail-biter; the owner changed her mind at the last minute. She wasn’t interested, or maybe didn’t trust us. But Ed already had all these grants lined up to pay for it. So he told her: if we don’t do this now, it won’t happen. And she changed her mind again. We both jumped in the car with the baby to drive to her lawyer’s office in Ohio. She took one look at the baby and signed. We credit Molly with a few land deals.”
“We liked to meet around old hay wagons. They had a nice big surface to lay stuff out, like topographic maps.”
“Most of my strongest memories are around the people. I don’t consider myself a squishy people person, but once in a while you get shown the light, and when you see it, you should pay attention. When Harry Hollis would tell stories about what things were like before cars.
When Marian Armstrong refused to let me drive her past her family homestead because it had been sold to make a gravel quarry for the I-69 highway. When Dave Hudak would kneel his giant bearself down to tell me about a wildflower. When Steve Howard took me to Crane to show me the beautiful forest there. Barbara Restle telling me about her adventures as a shepherdess in Fiji and a farmer in Beanblossom. Darlene Gerster donating her home to us after her husband died. Dan Willard teaching me to fly fish for bluegill at Lake Monroe. And John Lawrence. What a mensch. He’s a great friend and a tremendous conservationist. The best thing I ever did at Sycamore was hire John Lawrence.”
Joan ten Hoor:
“The first Annual Meeting [now Annual Celebration] I attended was at Yellowwood State Forest, then a couple at John Gallman’s house in the country. The early silent auctions were three or four items laid out on a flatbed truck!” Tom Zeller: “There was a property donation in Lawrence County. It was coming from a nurse whose son died in his 20s. I remember going and meeting with her, listening about her son. That property meant something to her and her son. It was touching, this very human story. Someone who’s probably not super wealthy, yet here’s this property that’s worth thousands of dollars and she’s donating it in her son’s memory. I was the main speaker at the dedication ceremony, which for me was quite touching.”
“Every time I was involved with a land donation I came away humbled. When we’d meet with families, sometimes they had the land in the family for decades or 100 years. And the ties those families had with the land and why that made them want to protect that land forever. There were some really neat stories.”
30 YEARS INTO forever
Taking a look back at our past helps us understand our position in the present, but more importantly, we can use this knowledge as a launchpad for Sycamore’s future. Ten thousand acres represents a huge amount of habitat that is
now permanently protected. The impact on countless animals, plants, insects, and fungi can’t be quantified. But this work is only the beginning, really. The more acres we protect, the more hours it will take each year to care for that land, whether it’s a healthy old-growth forest or land that had once been drained, tiled, and used for agriculture to feed our communities. And there will be many more land acquisition projects over the coming decades as we seek to restore the Indiana landscape ever closer to the wild forests and fens that once covered this region.
All of this will require continued commitment from members, volunteers, staff, and conservation partners. We know it takes long days, hard work, and sincere dedication to keep an organization like Sycamore strong. But what struck me in the conversations I had with Sycamore’s founders is that not one person brought up how difficult it was. When they spoke of complex projects and busy schedules, of bringing their baby to landowner meetings or tiring phone conversations with the IRS, it was with fondness and gratitude. This work is rewarding. Everyone who has been a part of Sycamore Land Trust discovers that.
Our vision is to build habitat corridors across southern Indiana and beyond, connecting Sycamore’s nature preserves with other protected land so that wildlife can safely migrate and expand their reaches. We hope you will continue to be a part of this work.
You can read more about our vision for landscape-scale conservation at sycamorelandtrust.org/learn/beanblossom-creek.
Great blue heron at Beanblossom Bottoms, June 2020, Abby Henkel.