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Giving words to the land: Sycamore Land Trust's Abby Henkel

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Giving words to the land: Sycamore Land Trust's Abby Henkel

Although I still haven't met Abby Henkel, I appreciate the work she does as communications director for the Sycamore Land Trust all the more as parks and wildlife reserves have become a refuge for me and my family in the time of COVID-19. These days I’ve found such solace in hiking, as migrating birds return from the south and the flowers bloom. So, while I interviewed Henkel over email to learn more about her work with Sycamore Land Trust, I cannot wait to see her words and work written in the beautiful habitats of Southern Indiana. 

BEN VALENTINE: This year Sycamore Land Trust is celebrating 30 years of protecting land for all to enjoy. Looking back, what work has your organization done that makes you the most proud?

ABBY HENKEL: What stands out to me most is the way our founders and leaders over the years created this long-lasting community of nature lovers from many backgrounds, with various motivations for protecting the environment. It’s a real testament to the power of collective action. Can you imagine buying 10,070 acres on your own? I don’t know anyone who could do that. But together, that’s exactly what we’ve done. And now those acres are protected forever. That’s an almost unfathomable accomplishment.

Blue Herron at Beanblossom Nature Preserve

Great Blue Heron at Beanblossom Nature Preserve

VALENTINE: Sycamore Land Trust does much more than protect land. Can you briefly talk about your organization’s mission, and how the many programs you all have work together towards that goal? 

HENKEL: A central part of our mission is environmental education. That comes in many forms. We have a full-time environmental education director, which is pretty unusual for a land trust because they tend to be focused just on permanently protecting land through ownership or conservation easements, and on land stewardship. We put a lot of work into those areas as well, but we also recognize that this work simply can’t continue into the future without a huge community of people who care about it. In our education work, we don’t try to make people into experts or naturalists. We aim to get people comfortable in the outdoors, curious about nature, and passionate about protecting it. I look at our work as developing the next generation of conservationists. Otherwise, this work won’t be supported in the future. So in addition to our programs in schools and community groups, we lead public hiking events and volunteer workdays. There are so many partners who contribute to these events, from all the schools my colleague Shane Gibson works with, to the various businesses and venues that host or sponsor our events, other conservation groups working toward the same goals, and so many talented experts who lend their time to lead specialized hikes and speak at our events.

But we also maintain 35 miles of hiking trails at our 16 public nature preserves. Before I started at Sycamore, I didn’t understand just how much work goes into building trails and maintaining them, not to mention all the work that goes totally unnoticed but is crucial to pulling this off —  parking lots, signage, collaborating with neighbors who live near public preserves, monitoring habitat to make sure that public access isn’t harming the species that live there….it’s a lot of work but we’re happy to do it, because people are so grateful to have these outdoor spaces. Especially during a pandemic where basically every other form of entertainment is shut down. We’ve worked really hard to keep our preserves open and safe, even as traffic to all natural areas across the country has increased markedly.

VALENTINE: In my experience, most people dedicated to protecting the environment have an important moment when they became committed to this work. Is there a specific experience or moment that brought you to do this work?

HENKEL: As a student at Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana, I got exposed to farming and a generally more earth-friendly way of living. It’s always been important to my family, but I think it took living on my own and interacting with other crunchy hippies my age to really embrace it. Thanks to writers Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, and Michael Pollan for influencing my nascent environmentalism. After college, volunteering and living on a farm run by Heifer International in Massachusetts (Overlook Farm, now closed) exposed me more to questions of environmental justice. I started to learn how much a person’s wealth and privilege played a role in their access to a cleaner environment and related issues like food security.

When my niece Hannah was born in 2016, my world changed. I didn’t know I could love a little potato that much. That’s what she looked like as an infant. Suddenly my desire to keep the world green and healthy, and make it a lot greener and healthier, became deeply personal. I had someone specific I was doing this work for. I want Hannah to grow up knowing and caring about this amazing earth. She and her tiny friends at preschool deserve clean air, drinking water that won’t dry up, equitable access to the outdoors, and the same shot at a long and healthy life that we all want our loved ones to have.

In the end, all of this comes down to climate change for me. I’m what they call a climate alarmist. I closely follow research from the Yale Center on Climate Change Communications, the fabulous climate reporting by the New York Times, local research by the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University, and probably more books and research than I should really allow myself to get sucked into. It can be emotionally exhausting. I’m still trying to develop coping mechanisms so that I don’t get totally drowned in my fears about the future of this planet. I seek those nuggets of hope, moments of stillness in nature, admiration for the work climate activists are doing, and I use that to fuel my work.

VALENTINE: Facing the loss of native habitat and biodiversity can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Today, Indiana has less than one percent of its old-growth forest remaining. These pockets of native habitat are surrounded by seemingly endless fields of monocrops, divided up by roads, and encroached upon by development. While I seek them out, and cherish areas like what Sycamore Land Trust protects, it's hard to consider these areas pristine. How do you face the daunting realities of your work, while continuing to put in the work necessary to expand upon these small pockets of hope?

HENKEL: Some days are easier than others. It can be disheartening, seeing how some people seem to view the land and our responsibility to it so differently from the way I see it. But those days are in the minority for me. I realize we all have different priorities, and mine aren’t any more important than anyone else’s. And I truly think we can harmonize all these vital needs of humanity —  to seek financial stability, environmental abundance, equitable opportunity, and long-term success. We aren’t there yet. But there are many people working toward that every day, and making progress. What gives me such hope is the intense passion of others. It inspires me to keep going. There are wealthy people who could spend lavishly on themselves, and yet they choose to donate that money to help Sycamore acquire land and care for it to benefit other humans and wildlife. There are people who can only give $20 every couple of years; think what it means to them, and to our organization, that they would share their limited means to help protect natural areas simply because they believe in it. There’s nothing more moving to me than that.

And we are making huge strides. Thirty years ago, there was no Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve. The first parcel we acquired in this absolutely beautiful wetland forest-covered 40 acres donated by my friend Barbara Restle. Now, Sycamore protects 1,600 acres and counting. In fact, we’re launching a new campaign this summer to reach out to landowners and the general public about helping Sycamore acquire more land in what we call the Beanblossom Creek Bicentennial Conservation Area. It’s home to endangered species, an incredible diversity of plants and animals, and more carbon sequestration than basically any other type of habitat in Indiana. Last week I was there with my partner when we were stopped dead in our tracks by a great blue heron standing on the boardwalk not 30 feet away from us. We stood in silence for several minutes, watching it listen to the calls of its fellow herons and slowly open and close its beak. Eventually, it took off in flight with those powerful wings. It brought me to tears, unable to really process what had happened. I felt like I had helped that heron find a safe home. And so has anyone who has been a part of Sycamore’s work, in any way. That’s the power of visiting these nature preserves as a Sycamore member, employee, or volunteer. You know they wouldn’t be as strong without your support.

VALENTINE: What fascinates me about your position is that you must give words to the land. As communication director, you articulate the value of taking land out of what we typically consider production in a capitalist system. You're a modern-day Lorax! How do you do it?

Wow! That’s maybe the coolest description I’ve received about my job.

People respond to sincerity. You can’t do this job if you don’t believe in it. That will come across in your writing, and writing is a huge part of my job. It’s probably my favorite part. I love putting together The Twig, our magazine that comes out three times a year. It used to be a newsletter —  first as a two-sided photocopy decades ago, later developing into a nice booklet with articles about our work. When I came on board in 2016, I tried to transform it into more of an educational piece about the impacts of conservation, details about nature and wildlife in Indiana’s habitats, and stories about the work our staff and partners are doing to put our members’ visions to work. There are so many wonderful stories and projects to share about our work. It gives me an excuse to do a deep dive into various topics that I really should know more about, anyway. We’ve had themes like The Water Issue, the Biodiversity Issue, the Beanblossom Bottoms Issue, and most recently The Insect Issue this summer. That was a fun project, getting myself comfortable looking at thousands of close-ups of bugs. I have this thing about exoskeletons. But after a while, they start to get cute. Sometimes it’s a face only an entomologist could love. I was just taking a walk through my garden and spotted a candy-striped leafhopper on some milkweed. Those guys are the cute ones. The tiny red and blue stripes caught my eye from ten feet away. But we need the not-so-cute ones, too. In researching this issue, I learned how important insects are in their own right of course, but also in the food web. They play incredible roles in our ecosystem. And they’re dying at unprecedented rates, just like birds in North America —  and of course, these crises are connected, because birds prey on insects.

I think my enthusiasm is what engages the people I communicate with on behalf of Sycamore, even when the person writing (me) isn’t an expert. That might actually be a benefit to doing this job, since most of the people who follow Sycamore aren’t conservation biologists. I studied music in undergrad and arts administration in grad school, but I’m a conservationist through and through. So I think about the questions I have about our work and our impact, and I take that as a launchpad to learn more. It’s those stories about the details —  how invasive garlic mustard is directly contributing to the demise of the beautiful West Virginia white butterfly, which lives on Sycamore properties —  that you realize the impact of this conservation work. I think it’s more motivating than an update on how many acres we’ve protected.

Writing for diverse audiences, I have to remember that the reasons I’m in this work might be totally different from other people’s motivations. Several years ago I started an annual survey of our donors to find out what they care about, why they support Sycamore specifically, and how they think we’re doing. I was surprised to see that my number-one motivator —  climate change —  ranked toward the bottom of the list. It has slowly crept up a bit over the past three years. This past February I did an issue of The Twig all about climate change. I wonder if that will have any impact on people’s perceptions or responses in next year’s survey. I expect many of our donors already care deeply about climate change; they just might not see the connection between conservation and carbon storage, habitat corridors, and other ways in which land preservation is directly addressing it.

VALENTINE: On the phone we talked about considering climate change and conservation through an intersectional lens. Much of Sycamore Land Trust’s land is open to all—yet race and gender color our experiences of public space. As we’ve seen time and again, birding while Black can is different, and can even be seen as dangerous. You noted that land is a historical means of possessing and exerting power, a means denied to African Americans for hundreds of years, and on land that was claimed by indigenous people for centuries prior to being colonized by white settlers. How does an intersectional lens inform you, and your work at Sycamore Land Trust?

HENKEL: As a white person who has only begun to really dig deep into this topic in the past few years, I want to caution that I’m not an expert or anyone who can tell others what to do. I don’t know what it feels like to be misperceived as a threat to others while you’re just outside enjoying nature, birding, running, existing. But I am reading the accounts of Black people who experience that, and it enrages me that we have let this inequality and oppression continue for far too long. That I have not done more yet.

There are many BIPOC working for change in conservation and environmental protection/access/justice. They are definitely the ones to listen to on this topic. The current national conversations have helped me find many more of these people. Their hard work inspires and motivates me. Instagram is a great place to go if you want to quickly be exposed to a ton of useful information. In addition to great nonprofits doing this work, there are individual activists specifically in the environmental field, like @hood__naturalist, @greengirlleah, and @BlackAFinSTEM. Then there are so many Black women who have used their own time and energy to share their knowledge and experiences of Black justice in general, like @ijeomaoluo and @rachel.cargle to name a few. I’m thrilled to see this week’s NYT bestsellers list feature so many books by Black authors and so many books about dismantling white supremacy.

Going back to your question about how intersectionality has affected me in this work: every day I learn more about how you can’t do conservation work well without recognizing that environmental protection intersects with other forms of justice. And that the conservation movement and landownership have problematic histories we need to address. These realities have contributed to the climate we’re working in today. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can move forward and authentically serve people.

For at least the past few years, the Land Trust Alliance has been pushing conversations, training, and resources about racial justice. More land trusts are taking time to recognize the Native lands they walk on, and some are working with Indigenous communities or other traditionally marginalized groups in the regions they protect. We’re examining how we to make our communications and programs reach beyond simply making nature preserves free and open, to actively welcome BIPOC and contribute to their safety. This process is called community conservation, and I’d like to see every land trust doing it. That’s how you authentically serve your communities, by weaving conservation science into authentic collaborations that serve your communities. It empowers the people you serve to take more ownership over the land and your organization, which can only be a good thing for the future of conservation.

Another conversation that’s really just now becoming mainstream is how many Black people feel so unsafe in the outdoors. Many white Americans are unaware that our typical experience of finding peace, stillness, and comfort in nature is not an option for people who have inherited histories and/or lived experiences of lynching, slavery, and the ongoing epidemic of police brutality and other violence against Black bodies. It’s the duty of conservationists to directly address that problem.

Now our country is finally really talking about the fact that Black lives matter. How messed up is it that this is even up for debate, whether a human life MATTERS? This should be a no-brainer!

The fact that this is a national conversation right now sheds a whole lot of light on the reality that environmental access, clean air and water, exposure to natural areas, and safety in the outdoors are as unjust as any other established system in this country. You summarized the history of systemic racism in land use so well, so I won’t try to delve into that further here. But learning about this through influential activists from across the country, and in some spheres of the national land trust community where people are actively addressing issues of racial inequality and the environment, I’ve begun to see how deeply conservation is tied to justice. And that if we are not actively reaching out and listening to people of color, we aren’t doing our work right.

This is a topic I’m bringing up in my professional circles, but it’s a new one for many people so I am learning how to accept the pace of anti-racism work. I’m happy to say that I’ve already seen changes in awareness and understanding from many people, including myself. Progress comes slowly. But it doesn’t come at all if we don’t persist. It can be disheartening, but that’s part of the process and I think it’s something white allies need to accept as our responsibility. We must take on as much of the burden as possible and use our privilege to change the way things are, always listening to the truths of our Black and Brown colleagues and community members.

VALENTINE: What are some good ways to get involved with Sycamore Land Trust?

HENKEL: I think the lowest barrier to getting involved with Sycamore is by visiting our nature preserves. There are some really beautiful natural areas that we are honored to protect, like Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, Dilcher-Turner Canyon Forest, and the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill. We actually have 16 public preserves, which you can find more info on at sycamorelandtrust.org/explore. We have a beautiful free Nature Preserve Guide, sponsored by Visit Bloomington, which you can request a copy of by mail or download the PDF.

But another important way to get involved is to become a member. These are people and businesses who donate $40 or more per year. They are absolutely the reason we can accomplish so much. We have more than 1,100 members spanning from Indianapolis to Evansville and surprisingly, many out of state. I already hyped up The Twig, which is our magazine written specifically for our members and mailed three times a year.

Then there are our public outdoor events, which have been put on hold due to the pandemic but generally we tend to have several each month. They can be educational hikes like how to identify trees in winter or wild edibles in summer, or workshops like Birdwatching 101 or intro to invasive plant identification. We try to keep them open and accessible. Members can join any of these events for free; we ask a suggested donation of $5 per person or $10 per family for non-members, but it’s strictly a donation and not a requirement.

You can also reach out to us about bringing our Environmental Education programming to your classroom or community group, free of charge. We can do talks, hands-on programs, long-term projects with classrooms, working with students to grow and tend Native Plant Projects on school properties, and much more.

And of course, there’s spreading the word. A lot of people don’t know what land trusts are (private nonprofits set up by individuals to save land and restore habitat). It really does make a difference when people choose to learn more about conservation and talk to others about the importance of habitat restoration and supporting our work.

We also involve a ton of volunteers in our work, from organized work days at nature preserves for people of all experience levels, to projects that require more expertise or independence like our Trail Rangers and Preserve Stewards. sycamorelandtrust.org/volunteer.

VALENTINE: Looking onwards to the next 30 years, what’s in store for Sycamore Land Trust?

Conservation is a forever promise. It means that the trees we’re protecting today will still be here in 50 years. You can hike a Sycamore trail today and know that in 200 years, someone else will be hiking it. So we need to be able to promise our supporters and partners that we will always remain financially stable and true to our mission. We’re lucky to have had founding members and early leaders who always kept longevity in mind. I’m so impressed with my colleagues on the staff and board of directors for continuing that legacy and running Sycamore so well.

Our conservation vision focuses on building habitat corridors, or connected parcels of land. They provide immense benefits to wildlife and plants for many reasons. The more acreage you have of contiguous protected habitat, the safer it becomes for sensitive species. The edge can act like a buffer, making internal areas more removed from disturbance. This is crucial for the safety of animals like the endangered timber rattlesnake or the Indiana bat. And the reason they’re called corridors is that they provide safety for the many animals that migrate each year, and those that will be forced to permanently shift their homes northward due to climate change. Connecting habitat will be the key to survival for many animals and plants that will have to shift their ranges.

We’re focusing a lot of that corridor work in the Beanblossom Creek Bicentennial Conservation Area. My colleague Rob McCrea is actively identifying key parcels that we hope to take a look at and talk to landowners about. A lot of people want to help, but they simply don’t know what their options are or how to get the ball rolling.

We’re also in talks about goals to provide more land stewardship as our acreage grows. This means building the capacity to hire more land stewards. As we protect more land, we also promise to care for it by removing invasive species, planting native species, and doing scientific studies as we’re able to find partners to work with. Right now we’re working with Purdue on a wildlife study at our largest preserve in Brown County, the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill.