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How Mt. Cuba Center Became a Game Changer in Conservation

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It’s not something we think about every day, but “if you’re driving through the state of Delaware, you’re going to pass something that the Mt. Cuba Center has helped protect.”

Those are the words of one of Delaware’s leading conservationists, Blaine Phillips, senior vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional director of The Conservation Fund, saluting the efforts of one of its newer partners in acquiring open space and protecting it from future development.

The Mt. Cuba Center, based in the hilltop mansion built in 1935 by the late Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife, Pamela, was established as a nonprofit private foundation in 2002, a year after Mrs. Copeland’s death. Creation of the foundation launched a new era for the 583-acre property, transitioning it from a botanic garden on a private estate into a public garden whose managers sought to inspire visitors through the beauty of native plants.

While a steadily expanding tour schedule and an increased number of educational programs has built awareness of Mt. Cuba’s gardens, a second portion of Pamela Copeland’s vision—to assist in the preservation of large natural spaces in and near Delaware—has been executed largely under the public’s radar for more than a decade.

Just as Pamela Copeland believed that seeing native plants on the family estate would encourage people to appreciate native plants and become conservators of natural habitats, the directors believe they can amplify that belief through broader involvement in open-space conservation.

“Over the years, there have been quite a few, about 20 different deals that we have assisted in since 2005,” says Jeff Downing, Mt. Cuba’s executive director. Those deals have helped to preserve more than 15,000 acres in a region that includes all of Delaware and stretches north to the headwaters of the Brandywine and south to the Nanticoke River watershed and Chesapeake Bay.

The most prominent of those deals took place in late 2012, when Mt. Cuba made a $20 million grant that enabled The Conservation Fund to acquire the 1,100-acre Woodlawn Tract along the Brandywine in northern New Castle County and stretching into southeastern Pennsylvania, then transfer it to the federal government as part of what is now the First State National Historic Park.

“They made it possible,” Phillips says. “Without that heavy lift, I think we’d still be debating about a national park today.”

Mt. Cuba doesn’t buy land to build its real estate portfolio. Rather, it helps other organizations acquire properties deemed worthy of conservation. Its most frequent partners, Downing says, have been The Conservation Fund, the Brandywine Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands. Other nonprofits, like the Boy Scouts of America, have been beneficiaries of Mt. Cuba’s largesse, and so has the state of Delaware.

“The state budget has been challenging for the past six or seven years,” says David Small, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “The value of the money that Mt. Cuba has brought to the table has been critical to us,” especially when used as the private sector match required to leverage even larger federal grants for conservation and preservation.

Grants from Mt. Cuba have helped the state acquire properties that have become part of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative, a conservation-recreation-
ecotourism project along the Delaware Bay between New Castle and Lewes, as well as 1,100 acres of forest in Sussex County previously owned by the Glatfelter Pulp Wood Company.

Late last year, Mt. Cuba made headlines again, helping The Conservation Fund purchase the 1,025-acre Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm near Odessa and donate it to Delaware Wild Lands. The site, featuring freshwater tidal wetlands and remnants of forested coastal plain ponds, is considered one of the largest unprotected tracts remaining in Delaware’s coastal zone. Delaware Wild Lands intends to develop a long-term management plan that will include farming, hunting, trapping, wildlife tours and bird walks on the site.

Because it has tried to keep a low profile, it’s easy to underestimate Mt. Cuba’s role in conservation efforts, but its financial resources give it exceptional strength. With assets in excess of $320 million, it is believed to be second in size to only the Longwood Foundation among Delaware’s native foundations—those that are not only based in the state but also make most of their contributions here.

“They’re a game-changer,” says Richie I.G. Jones Jr., Delaware director of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization. 

Under federal law, Downing says, Mt. Cuba is required to distribute the equivalent of 5 percent of its endowment every year.  As with anything related to tax regulations, “it’s a complicated calculation,” but after allowing for maintaining the gardens and staff operations,  there is still typically $6 million to $8 million available each year to assist in conservation acquisitions, he says.

“Mt. Cuba is strategic and relatively undiluted in its focus on land preservation,” Jones says. Unlike other foundations rooted in the du Pont family, like Longwood, the Welfare Foundation and the Crystal Trust, Mt. Cuba does not fund the operations of other nonprofit organizations. It focuses its philanthropy on conservation and preservation.

Though Mt. Cuba’s focus is single-minded, its view is hardly narrow, says Kate Hackett, executive director of Delaware Wild Lands. 

Other organizations might have specific guidelines for determining whether they will get involved in a conservation acquisition. There must be a buffer of a certain size around waterways, for example, or a certain percentage of marshland on the site. “Sometimes you get five or seven organizations together, and each one invokes its own priorities, and it can be difficult to satisfy them all,” Hackett says. “Mt. Cuba has a broader mission.”

That broader mission, Phillips says, has enabled Mt. Cuba’s partners in the conservation community “to think boldly and to act boldly.”

Jones and Phillips say conservation groups typically keep their eyes out for properties whose characteristics fit their investment parameters, and they must have the agility to move when the land becomes available. When they identify an appropriate property and need assistance with funding, they will often approach Mt. Cuba. “We present the projects, but it’s their vision and leadership that determines where the funds go,” Phillips says.

In assessing properties, Mt. Cuba weighs several factors, Downing says. 

The size of the space is paramount, because it’s usually easier to preserve biodiversity and the health of an ecosystem on a larger property. Contiguity is important too, Downing says, citing the 747-acre Vance Morris Tract near Bowers Beach acquired for the state in early 2014. “The property was adjacent to two other large tracts of open space and helped fill in the gaps in that corridor. That’s an attractive thing to be able to preserve,” he says.

And, he says, it’s important that the organization or government agency that will ultimately hold title to the land has a management plan or a clear sense of objectives in place to ensure that the lands will be preserved in perpetuity.

Though Mt. Cuba’s resources are substantial, Downing cautions that the board of directors believes in conserving both open space and funds. “If it was in our interest as an organization, we could spend as much as we wanted, but our interest is in not squandering our resources,” he says. “We’re looking to preserve the endowment, to do as much here for as long as we can.”

Mt. Cuba’s efforts over the past decade have been “transformative,” Phillips says. 

“They’ve worked in all three counties. They’ve literally changed the landscape. They helped establish our first national park. They created a regional headquarters and campsite for the Boy Scouts in Kent County, and they recently helped create a 10,000-acre-plus contiguous plot of wetlands habitat in the coastal zone,” Phillips says. “They have literally reached out and touched almost every corner of the state.”

What’s next? 

Downing isn’t sure, but he echoes the observations of Phillips and Jones: It’s important to “have your eyes on the pieces of the puzzle that might be attractive someday” and be ready when the owners are ready to sell.

“The key issue here is impact,” Phillips says. “I can’t speak for Mt. Cuba, but their track record shows they recognize the potential impact of acquisition.”

“We’re really trying to improve the way we work together as organizations,” Jones says. “We’re all in this together.”

“With every acquisition we participate in, we strive to be consistent with the Copelands’ mission,” Downing says. “There are very few entities that have the wherewithal to be significant players in conservation, and we recognize, as the Copelands did, that once the land is developed, it’s gone.” 

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