Bonnie Van Alen. Photo credit: Jennifer Mathes

After 25 years of serving Willistown Conservation Trust as President, Bonnie Van Alen has transitioned to President Emerita, in addition to serving on Willistown Conservation Trust’s Board of Trustees. As of October 1, 2021, long-time Trust volunteer Catherine (Kate) W. Etherington has assumed Van Alen’s role as Executive Director.

Bonnie Van Alen’s land conservation legacy began over 40 years ago when she raised concerns over development threatening the rural Willistown countryside where she lived with her husband Jim and three boys. In the early 1980’s, Van Alen left her work at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia to launch a satellite program under the Brandywine Conservancy, with the purpose of conserving Willistown land with conservation easements held by the Brandywine Conservancy.

Following years of successful conservation easement negotiations — 90 in total — that inspired a community of conservation in Willistown and beyond, Van Alen received Brandywine Conservancy President Frolic Weymouth’s blessing and partnered with friend and current Trustee Alice Hausmann to create an independent 501(c)(3) organization in 1996.

Trustee Alice Hausmann shares, “From the very beginning, Bonnie was committed to her vision and putting it into action. Her passion for the natural world and her desire to share that passion with others governs all that she does and informs all she has accomplished for over 40 years.”

Called Willistown Conservation Trust, the organization soon began preserving public trail easements and three public nature preserves — Ashbridge Preserve, Kirkwood Preserve and Rushton Woods Preserve — in addition to completing more conservation easements with landowners. Under Van Alen’s leadership, the Trust expanded to over 25 employees, 22 Trustees and hundreds of volunteers, and today it offers nationally renowned, research-based Programs for public engagement, including the Bird Conservation, Community Farm, Education and Outreach, Land Protection, Stewardship, and Watershed Programs.

“The landscape of Willistown would look completely different had it not been for Bonnie’s foresight, hard work and determination,” says Van Alen’s successor Kate Etherington. “Her capacity to grow a small land trust into the organization it is today, with thriving programs and community events, is amazing. It is inspiring to see and learn from another woman’s leadership in our community.”

In addition to her conservation work at the Trust, Van Alen is also the co-founder of Delchester Group, Inc., a nonprofit organization formed to acquire and preserve critical properties by re-sale to conservation-minded buyers. Within the Trust’s focus area of 28,000 acres, Willistown Conservation Trust has conserved over 7,500 acres, and Delchester Group, Inc. is responsible for saving more than 2,000 acres.

Bonnie Van Alen leaves behind a land conservation legacy, but her biggest accomplishment remains the growth of the Trust. As she says, “I think the thing that I love the most about this organization is our staff, our wonderful board of trustees and our many volunteers and supporters. Our staff is above and beyond wonderful. They’re experts in their field and completely devoted to what they do, and I’m regularly inspired by their passion.”

Kate Etherington. Photo credit: Jennifer Mathes

Kate Etherington joined the Trust’s staff in 2020 as Associate Executive Director. She came to know the Trust and Van Alen many years prior while volunteering regularly at Rushton Farm and serving on the Board of Trustees. With a Master of Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania in nonprofit leadership and a breadth of management experience in the nonprofit sector, Etherington has the full support of the Board, staff and Van Alen in her new role of Executive Director.

Says Van Alen, “This organization will be left in incredibly good hands; Kate is brilliant, passionate, skilled and a lovely person to work with. Knowing that she will be taking on the role of Executive Director is one of the main factors that has made me comfortable stepping aside.”

“I welcome Kate Etherington in her new role as Executive Director and thank her for her past roles as a Trustee and Associate Executive Director,” adds Board of Trustees Chairwoman Beth Hucker. “Kate brings many skills with her as she succeeds Bonnie, and I have no doubt that our dedicated staff and Board members will help Kate thrive in her new role!”

In her transition, Van Alen will continue dedicating her time to the Trust’s goal of conserving 4,000 more acres by serving on the Trust’s Board of Trustees, acting as President Emerita and working with Delchester Group, Inc. to save more land from development.

As Executive Director, Etherington plans to continue focusing on land conservation and the critical properties in the Willistown area, as well as the smaller parcels that contribute to larger greenways. Additionally, she hopes to invest in the Trust’s many programs and to grow education and outreach efforts at the Trust’s beautiful Rushton Conservation Center to reach a broader and more diverse group of people in the region and beyond.