Fourteen years ago, I began stewarding portions of land in the Upper Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. At the outset, it was a mere 2,400 square feet in the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE) organic community garden plots. I worked shoulder to shoulder with SCEE staff and fellow gardeners to clear invaders from fence lines and to run vital waterlines.
After two seasons of growing at the community garden plots, my budding farm enterprise, Love ’n Fresh Flowers, was ready to take on the responsibility of caring for more land. I was invited by SCEE to join an existing cooperative farm on their property. From 2010 to 2020, I worked with fellow farmers and SCEE staff to maintain a thriving ecosystem while also producing crops of economic value to humans.
During that same decade, I also took on the stewardship of privately owned land around the corner on Port Royal Avenue, eventually farming and caring for nearly six acres of land in Upper Roxborough by 2022. In each of these spaces, I have been repeatedly awed by the thriving natural habitat in this verdant corner of America’s sixth largest city, meeting the same community members — eastern box turtles, American toads, green frogs, eastern red-back salamanders, northern ring-neck snakes, Carolina wrens, brown thrashers, indigo buntings, great-horned owls, piebald deer, red foxes, coyotes, and many more — in our burgeoning biome.
One of the best parts of my experience as an urban farmer and citizen ecologist has been the tribe of like-minded humans I have come to work with to regenerate wildlife habitat and healthy watersheds within our city’s landscape. At times it has felt like a battle, and these relationships are more like war alliances to fight against quick-turn developers and a City Council that perpetually prioritizes property tax dollars over all else. The crush of pandemic-fueled development in the past two years makes many longtime Philadelphia residents question if they even want to live in this city anymore.
On June 30, 2022, I joined a Zoom meeting and listened with utter dismay to SCEE unveil their plan to sell 24 acres of donated forested land for development. Nearly 100 concerned neighbors also attended the meeting and expressed their equal measure of confusion and anger. How could a nonprofit with an espoused mission to “encourage stewardship of the environment’’ possibly be courting bids from developers?
It is an overt violation of trust! The community, human and nonhuman, of Upper Roxborough had considered SCEE to be an ally and environmental leader for years. Now they would dare be the enemy?
SCEE leadership had a host of scripted talking points during the meeting to deflect community outcry. The justification for the sale of such a large, untouched wooded area was that the Center needs funding for nondescript capital improvements in the future, such as stormwater mitigation projects in Wind Dance Pond and more cages for patients at their wildlife rehab clinic. The irony of this “logic” is thick as toad eggs on the water’s edge in springtime.
The tract of land the SCEE proposes to sell off, known as the “Boy Scout Tract,” is directly adjacent to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, a 35-acre rewilded site that is the destination of thousands of American toads each spring as they congregate to mate and lay eggs. In early summer, the itty-bitty toadlets leave the reservoir and make their way back to the woods in the Boy Scout Tract. A decade-old, much-publicized annual “Toad Detour” is perhaps SCEE’s most visible and continuous public outreach program, drawing hundreds of volunteers and no doubt many donation dollars. Now those toads will be put in direct harm’s way by the very organization that preaches how critical they are to Philadelphia’s ecosystem.
That the sale of this land is, purportedly, to fund future wildlife rehabilitation efforts smacks of ridiculousness. How many injured and maimed toads will show up at the SCEE wildlife clinic once development of this land directly across the street begins? Never mind, you can’t see a little toad when you’re on a bulldozer.
Second irony, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. Any development on this tract of land directly adjacent to Wind Dance Pond and at the headwaters of pristine Green Tree Run will cause far greater stormwater runoff challenges than already exist. When the large mature trees here are torn down to create space for construction of even a “small development,” all that rich topsoil they held tight for decades will be washed away to the pond and Schuylkill River below. Even elementary school kids know the immense value of trees and soil to the long-term health of ecosystems and humans. That the executive director and the board at our city’s foremost environmental education nonprofit cannot foresee this disaster is utterly implausible. Particularly when the justification they use for this sale is a lack of funding to manage stormwater runoff to the very same pond and spring-fed stream that will be devastated by said development. They know better and they just do not care.
In an interview with Grid in August 2011, the then newly hired SCEE executive director, Mike Weilbacher, was asked about his thoughts on his new leadership role: “I think that sustainability has been a big topic of conversation in the city of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia has just made incredible strides in the sustainability conversation in recent years. The Water Department’s plan for how it handles water in the years ahead is just visionary and puts Philadelphia on the cutting-edge of that issue. The Schuylkill Center has been here doing this kind of work for almost 50 years. We’re just really thrilled to be positioned where we are; where we’re going to help in the conversation that this city is having to make it one of the ‘greenest’ cities, if not the ‘greenest’ city in the U.S.”
And yet Mr. Weilbacher now glibly proposes to sell the land that protectively nestles the only remaining first-order watershed in the city to developers. What is the message here for children who visit SCEE to learn about environmental stewardship? Do not trust anyone. Even if a community leader tells you for years that their mission is to hold onto green spaces, care for wildlife, and protect our watershed, you should assume they can be bought off for the right price. They do not really care about the toads, turtles, and owls, nor your access to open green space when you are older. Adults suck.
As a member of and donor to SCEE, I write this op-ed to sound the alarm. The land sale is still “in the works” as SCEE ironically hopes to find a developer they think will be “less destructive”. In a world that feels out of our control, this is one injustice we can right before it goes entirely wrong.
Stop the sale of the Boy Scout Tract in Upper Roxborough. Express your concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stop funding this insincere organization that is welcoming bulldozers to remove trees, threaten our watersheds, and run over the wildlife they claim to protect.
Jennie Love, owner of Love ‘n Fresh Flowers, a regenerative flower farm in Upper Roxborough