In early 2018, Dulcie Flaharty retired from a long career in land conservation. Most recently, she served as vice president of community partnerships for Natural Lands, and before that was executive director of Montgomery County Lands Trust. In April 2018, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at PennFuture’s Fourth Annual Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards. In this piece, she reflects on the award and her career in conservation.

I have yet to meet a baby conservationist. We are not born with a game plan to identify, protect, and enhance Mother Nature’s loveliest and most critical places. At differing times, for varied reasons, this work, this passion gets buried in our hearts, harnesses our intellect and our dreams, intertwines our vocations and avocations.

Luckily for me, any strategic plan I may have had for my life was written in pencil…and I always carry an eraser.

Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from PennFuture found its way on to my menu of gratifying experiences. It is an unexpected and much appreciated gift from the conservation community that it is a privilege to work among. They are skilled and tireless professionals. We met as colleagues, bonded as partners and celebrated successes and dealt with setbacks as loyal friends.

Having recently retired from Natural Lands, after 20 years as the founding executive of Montgomery County Lands Trust, I have had a chance to consider how a woman trained as an art historian found a career in land conservation and community connections.

Born in Philadelphia, I chose to attend Northwestern University, to taste a bit of the Midwest and foster an interest in architecture and painting through a curriculum in Art History. I returned to the area and received my degree at Temple University.

Land preservation found me 25 years ago, when a bold group of Montgomery County leaders determined that they could emulate the Chester County open space efforts. Together, they approached county commissioners with a finely crafted program to save land in the county, requesting a $100 million budget over ten years.

Wise leaders determined that a big budget alone would not assure success; a grassroots, on the ground organization had to be created to work with decision makers. The goal was to help foster smart choices, to determine where to make preservation investment, and how to arrange the inevitable growth coming to our region.

I was given the chance in 1993 to help build a county nonprofit land trust, Montgomery County Lands Trust, to work hand and glove with the county to insure that the Open Space Program reached all municipalities. Bringing land protection organizations, watershed groups and local conservation supporters into a collaborating assemblage was a goal.

We prioritized community-centric, policy-supported projects. If the policy wasn’t there, we worked with elected officials to develop it. Earning trust and gaining respect from decision makers and private citizens was a hallmark of our efforts. Strong relationships developed with state and local elected leaders who recognized that our projects were bipartisan and added value to their communities. Traditional metrics for success piled up.

Over the next 25 years, with the invaluable help of land trust leaders, supportive county and local elected officials, generous state funding entities and a remarkably diverse group of citizens, thousands of acres of natural resource land was protected, miles of trails were built throughout the regions, and agriculturally productive land was safeguarded for generations to come. Working in 2003 with established partnership groups and cultivated community leaders, we spearheaded a $150 million ballot campaign which received voter approval at 78 percent. A municipal education program, Green Futures, was designed to help educate and inform over 1,700 local leaders regarding smart growth and conservation decision making.

Yes, there were acres saved and the dollars raised….but it was the authentic, heartwarming stories of the open space heroes who worked on projects in their communities and the families who permanently protected their family lands that powered our work.

My commitment to conservation efforts comes from a strong desire to communicate and connect with people around a unifying concept. Rallying diverse communities and interest groups, I remain confident that people find a deep connection and affection for the places in which they live. Those places look and feel different, but harnessing that common affection brings power and focus to collaboration. Hearing the needs and respecting the unique skills and perspectives of those we strive to motivate and guide remains an imperative component to healthy, productive partnerships.

Looking into the future for opportunities, I believe that the landscapes of our work may change, yet the purpose of our efforts remains constant: green, healthy, connected communities to benefit and be enjoyed by all our citizens. Combining energies with people to identify, protect and enhance those special places in every town and countryside remains a great privilege and ongoing joy.

We must never forget to infuse our work with joy and with heart. And together, we bring Mother Nature the field operation that will protect our most special places.

This piece was originally published on PennFuture’s blog.