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Kate Hackett, Director of Delaware Wild Lands, Isn't Afraid to Get Her Hands Dirty


On this January morning, the temperature lingers in the teens, and duck hunter Brad du Pont has aborted his shooting session at Delaware Wild Lands’ Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm east of Odessa after his waders sprung a leak, leaving his feet uncomfortably cold.

The sun might be shining brightly but, for most of us, it’s a good day to be inside.

Du Pont knows where to find Kate Hackett, the executive director responsible for overseeing the 21,000 acres throughout Delaware that Wild Lands owns and protects.

“She’s out trapping with Bud Holland,” he says. Holland is a retired postman who used to take vacation for the entire month of February so he could focus on catching muskrat in the marshes around Blackbird Creek.

Now that they’ve gotten to know her, neither du Pont nor Holland are surprised by Hackett’s willingness to get down and dirty in her stewardship of Wild Lands’ acreage. “Kate will get in the canoe, put the waders on,” Holland says. “She’s a real boots-on-the-ground person.”

By keeping those boots firmly on the ground, Hackett is guiding a transformation of Wild Lands, the oldest conservation group in the state and its largest nongovernmental landowner, from an introspective operator of recreational preserves to a visible partner and collaborator with national and regional conservation-environmental entities such as The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, the Delaware Nature Society and Mt. Cuba Center.

Managing change of an entity that had been guided for nearly a half-century by two generations of the same family isn’t easy, but it seems to come naturally to Hackett. “You pretty much always know where she’s coming from,” Holland says.

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Hackett grew up in the hills of West Virginia, where, she says, “there wasn’t much to do besides play basketball and run around in four-wheel drives.”

She was good at both. Her basketball prowess led to her being recruited for a traveling team that played around the country before she landed a place on the starting five at Yale University. As for the four-wheel drives, Hackett says, “I would be the Mud Bog Queen. I was the best female driver. I’d drive through the bogs in my boyfriend’s jacked-up truck.”

Hackett followed a circuitous route to Delaware. From West Virginia, it was on to Yale, from which she graduated in 1991 with a dual major in environmental studies and political science. She landed a seasonal position with the U.S. Forest Service in Montana, but wasn’t happy when they offered her a full-time desk job because she preferred working outdoors. So she headed to New York City—“a spontaneous decision,” she says—where she waited on tables until she found a job she liked—working on corporate communications with a new marketing firm, Shephardson Stern + Kaminsky. 

“I learned a tremendous amount, completely worked my ass off,” she says. The firm kept growing, but she tired of New York and the private sector, and wanted to get into her first love—conservation work, and she wanted to do it abroad.

“Shephardson Stern was just great,” Hackett says. They even bought her a plane ticket to her next job—with the waterworks ministry in Eritrea, which was trying to rebuild the African nation’s water infrastructure after a 30-year civil war. Next came a stint with UNICEF in Nairobi, Kenya, where she blended her environmental and marketing skills to create educational resources on public health and water sanitation issues.

Hackett then decided to return to the United States, studying for her master’s at the University of Michigan. While there she fell in love with another graduate student, Kent Messer. They married in 2000, then headed to Ithaca, N.Y., where she worked on water-quality issues for the county while he studied for his doctorate at Cornell.

When Messer finished his degree, he narrowed his job offers to two: one in Boulder, Colo., the other at the University of Delaware. As she recalls, “Kent said to both of them, ‘What can you do for my wife?’”

“Boulder was fine,” Hackett says, “but UD set up three days of informational interviews for me, ran me up and down the state. I look back now and realize that’s Delaware, but I didn’t recognize it then.”

Messer took the UD job. He is now director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Hackett landed at The Nature Conservancy.

Hackett was but a toddler at the time of Delaware Wild Lands’ defining moment, but she has heard the story told many times.

Founded in 1961 by Edmund H. “Ted” Harvey, Delaware’s first land trust began buying property in Sussex County to protect it from development. Its first purchase was Trussum Pond near Laurel, now part of Trap Pond State Park. By the late 1960s, the young organization had turned its attention north, to the area near the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, where the Shell Oil Co. was starting to buy land with plans to put a refinery there. 

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To counter, “Ted got a map, (identified the land owners) and started buying land in a patchwork pattern, just enough to prevent Shell from acquiring all the land it needed,” Hackett says.

“All these farmers had money dangling in front of their faces,” says Kathy Harvey, Ted Harvey’s daughter-in-law. “There were some hard feelings. There were some barns that got burned down when people did sell to Shell.”

“Ted Harvey signed contracts to buy a bunch of properties without having two nickels to rub together, and then we’d go out and raise the money,” says Wild Lands chairman Eugene H. Bayard, a board member since 1984. “That’s been the M.O. for 50 years.”

“To hell with Shell” became Harvey’s mantra, says longtime conservationist Lynn Williams, a former board member of both Wild Lands and the Delaware Nature Society. The slogan soon turned up on lapel buttons throughout the state, with its most prominent wearer being Gov. Russell W. Peterson, who persuaded the General Assembly to pass his Coastal Zone Act in June 1971. The landmark environmental legislation banned new heavy industry on a two-mile strip of Delaware’s coastline, which effectively ended Shell’s refinery threat. When Shell officially abandoned its plan in 1984, Wild Lands and the state purchased the 2,700 acres that Shell had assembled as the refinery site. 

After Harvey died in 1978, Delaware Wild Lands stuck with his long-held belief that “the best way to preserve land is to own it,” so it continued to buy and preserve more land under the leadership of his son, Holger “Rusty” Harvey. Sometimes Wild Lands sold or traded its holdings, making deals with the state and other conservation partners. Former Wild Lands properties now owned by the state include farmland surrounding the Buena Vista estate and the Thousand Acre Marsh in New Castle County, the Ted Harvey Conservation Area in Kent County, and Trussum Pond and the Angola Neck Preserve in Sussex County.

Individual donors and foundation grants helped make many of the deals possible, even when people might have wondered why the land was being preserved, says Kathy Harvey, now program manager for Delaware Wild Lands. “Wild Lands has no babbling brooks. We don’t have streams that you can canoe in. A lot of it was marshland, bug-infested. It’s not meant for people to walk on because it’s way too fragile.”

Wild Lands’ most significant holding is the Great Cypress Swamp, 11,000 acres in south-central Sussex County, the largest freshwater wetlands and contiguous block of forest in the state. Wild Lands has developed a sustainable forestry program there, as well as other projects to restore the wetlands, thus increasing the diversity of the swamp’s plant and animal communities.

At Milford Neck, on the Delaware Bay in Kent County, Wild Lands owns 3,500 acres of a block of more than 10,000 acres of forest, farmland, tidal marsh and beach, managed jointly with the state and The Nature Conservancy.

Its properties in New Castle County, all below the C&D Canal, include 1,200 acres of wetlands at Augustine Creek, 4,500 acres at Taylors Bridge, and the 430-acre Sharp Farm at the confluence of the Appoquinimink River and Drawyers Creek. The Roberts Farm, part of the Taylors Bridge holdings, and the Sharp Farm were acquired in 2015.

With Ted and Rusty Harvey at the helm, Wild Lands properties had generally been off-limits to the public, except for those who had permission to hunt and trap there. “That’s OK,” conservationist Williams says. “It was not paid for by tax dollars.” 

But Hackett, hired in 2011, a year after Rusty Harvey’s death, is opening the fences a little. Under her leadership, Wild Lands is creating educational programs for children and camping opportunities for Scout troops and allowing occasional visits by birders. It is bringing in the Delaware Nature Society to conduct environmental education programs.

Occasional public access has a real benefit, says Bill Stewart, president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society. “It gives the public an understanding and awareness of how important these properties are.” DOS has partnered with Wild Lands on conservation and remediation programs for shorebird habitats on Wild Lands properties.

But there’s a good reason the properties are off-limits most of the time. “This land is not being preserved for humans. It’s being preserved for other species that need to have a home,” Stewart says.

Though Wild Lands properties are not being preserved for humans, maintaining them in close to their natural state does have its benefits for homo sapiens.

At its most basic level, preservation means cleaner air to breathe and clearer water to drink—and ultimately ensures the long-term vitality of farms and forests. In addition, seeds collected from healthy marshes on Wild Lands properties are being used to restore marshes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. And, at Milford Neck, researchers are conducting surveys to assess sea level inundation, examine interactions between surface water and ground water, and monitor the erosion and migration of coastal salt marshes, a crucial area of study associated with sea level rise. Hydrology efforts in the Great Cypress Swamp are designed to promote reforestation and minimize the likelihood of flooding in nearby areas.

“People are not aware of the services preserved lands provide,” says Wendy Scott, Wild Lands’ development and marketing manager, “but they’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

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Though Kathy Harvey says her father-in-law felt most comfortable with the good ol’ boys of Sussex County, hunter Brad du Pont says Hackett has brought the organization a new level of professionalism through her scientific knowledge and experience in marketing and fundraising. 

“Rusty learned on the job, but Kate knew a lot before she came here,” du Pont says.

“She’s done a remarkable job,” Bayard says. He cites the partnerships she has developed with other conservation groups, her outreach efforts and her initiatives in promoting limited public access. She’s getting it done with a staff that recently expanded to eight people and a budget of less than $1 million a year.

“She has become the face of the organization,” he says. “I think she’s a rock star.”

The Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay Council agrees. In March, Hackett received that group’s 2017 Woman of Distinction Award. “She’s a good leader,” Holland says. “She listens, she evaluates input and comes up with sound decisions.”

How many executive directors of organizations, du Pont asks, are going to put on their boots and get a hands-on experience in trapping muskrat?

For Hackett, that frigid January morning in the marsh was time well-spent. “Fantastic,” she reports, “especially learning the similarities between what muskrats need for habitat and what waterfowl need.”

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