If there’s one thing Chris Schipper relishes, it’s a long walk in the woods. He takes them very often, because the moments he spends strolling between tall trees and alongside snaking streams give him the chance to clear his mind, decompress and simply enjoy the outdoors. “Nature has always filled me with wonder and awe,” he says. “When you’re out there looking up at one-hundred-year-old trees, you gain a sense of proportion and perspective. You can step back and really appreciate where you are.”
Schipper says his connection with the woods was formed when he was a kid exploring the undeveloped areas around his hometown of Harrison, New York, and camping in the wild as a Boy Scout. Since then, he’s lived in different states and foreign countries. Yet when he went looking for a place to settle down in Fairfield County, New Canaan seduced him. “Each of the towns in this area is lovely in its own way, but for me, the woodlands of New Canaan make it special.”
He’s so charmed by the natural beauty around him that Schipper has been working tenaciously to encourage residents to get outside and walk, to find fascination in the leafy spaces and tranquil meadows that distinguish the town. Those are the seeds he wants to plant as president of the New Canaan Land Trust, the once sleepy nonprofit that’s making delightful noise about serene sanctuaries. If he succeeds, he’ll build a broader base of support for the Land Trust, and for its mission to preserve open spaces, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.
When Schipper took the reins of the Land Trust in 2013, the nonprofit that was founded in 1967 was firmly established, but the organization had a low profile and slipped under the community’s radar. Despite the fact that it was New Canaan’s largest property owner—holding nearly seventy parcels totaling more than 300 acres with an appraised value of $100 million—annual meetings of the Land Trust were attended by just a half dozen people. “I know,” says Schipper, “because I was there nine out of ten years.” He wanted to drum up more public interest in the organization, so he formulated a strategy to raise awareness. “I thought the Land Trust could do better if it became more proactive and, through that cycle, bring in more donations to buy more land.” He implemented this plan with the help of a team of hands-on and hardworking board members—many of whom, like Schipper, were new recruits with plenty of energy and ideas.
The Land Trust, which is an all-volunteer organization, has accomplished a lot in the two years that have passed. It’s developed a rebranding and marketing campaign that’s effectively spread the word about its mission; it merged with the town’s Audubon Society, in the process absorbing an additional fifty-six acres and increasing the group’s holdings by 20 percent; it has doubled its membership and engaged youth groups around the community in clean-up efforts that have improved access to woodlands and encouraged kids to get invested in the undeveloped acreage around them. And perhaps most impressive, the Land Trust has opened a number of new wildlife sanctuaries for public use, including the Nancy Watson- Symington Woodlands off Wellesley Drive.
Before 2013, Land Trust properties weren’t promoted as open to the public, or adequately prepared for use by residents with a hankering for an afternoon amble outside, says Siw de Gysser, vice president of the Land Trust board. “At the Symington sanctuary, trails had been there for a long time, but few people knew about them; and if they did, they would not use the trails because there was poor access from the street. You had to squat down and get into the brambles to enter and find the walking path.” Today, a tidy fence and gate mark the entrance, where brush has been cleared away to create easy footing for hikers who come to see mourning cloak butterflies, or to hear the rapid trill of small birds like the worm-eating warbler. “Walking in places like this is great therapy,” says de Gysser, a New Canaan resident for twenty-six years. “When we first opened the sanctuaries, some of the neighbors worried that the whole population of New Canaan would be filing by. But that hasn’t been the case.” In fact, the Land Trust says these protected parcels can be a source of comfort for local homeowners, as they add to the value of the neighboring properties.
“We’re in the land appreciation business,” says Schipper. “But the process of preserving open space doesn’t happen overnight. The same can be said of giving land. That type of decision has a long gestation period. And it takes time for an organization like ours to support that type of gift, but we try to show donors that the town appreciates the land.”
Land conservation values have been in New Canaan’s DNA since the late 1960s, says Schipper, when a period of giving gained traction following the acquisition of Waveny House by the town. It became a beautiful and permanent open public space, and the gift triggered a pay-it-forward mentality as it resonated with citizens of all stripes, even those who had just modest acreage but fine vistas that they wanted to pass on. That spirit extended into the early 1990s, but has since tapered off. “I think the same set of values exists today, but we need to raise the profile of the Land Trust, so more people see it as an option,” says Schipper.
Raising that profile and attracting donors has entailed a lot of public relations work for the Land Trust. In discussions with locals and presentations to community groups, Schipper will emphasize that while the Land Trust embraces conservation, it also operates under the premise that there’s room for preservation and development. “You can have it all,” he says. “I ask people to think about the variables that influenced their decision to move here. They could have included schools and the commute to Manhattan, but the appearance of the town was probably important, too. New Canaan doesn’t look like every other place. That’s why I encourage people to think more broadly about where we live. It’s not just how your home looks from the driveway, but the impact the town makes when you get off the parkway.”
Thanks to the work of the Land Trust—which required both strategy and sweat as board members regularly don hiking boots to clear trails, twig by twig, and to attack invasive plants and vines with bare hands —New Canaan remains quite the natural beauty. And if the Land Trust meets its goals, there’ll be more pretty places to explore in the near future. The group recently announced the purchase of four acres adjoining another two-and-a-half-acre Land Trust property. Schipper, who was a finance executive at Fortune 500 companies like Dell prior to his retirement, calls this transaction an “add-on acquisition” as it expands the footprint of the group’s holdings. “The goal is to create corridors of open space,” he says. By the end of the year, the board hopes to add another thirty acres to its current portfolio of some 367 preserved acres.
People donate property to the Land Trust for different reasons. Some like the fact that a gift can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. (Depending on the terms of the gift, a donor may qualify for a reduction of federal and state income taxes and a reduction of local real estate taxes. Estate tax benefits are also possible.) Others don’t want to see their acreage developed; and a few have deeply personal reasons for giving land. Theodora Gatt, who now lives in Colorado near her daughters, donated four acres to the Land Trust in 2010 because she wanted to give something back to the town that she says was generous to her when she first arrived. At the time, she was a mother of two young girls, a native of China who had been living abroad for many years. “It was in New Canaan that I learned to be an American wife,” says Gatt. “People were very kind to me. This was one way I could thank them.”
What does the future hold for the Land Trust? Long-range goals include accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance. Plans for the short-term include improving more sanctuaries for public use. Over at Calhoun Meadow Woodlands, for instance, the group will use a grant from the New Canaan Community Foundation to rebuild a historic stone wall. “When we’re finished, that wall will be good to go for another one-hundred years,” says Schipper.
Local youth is an important component for future growth, too, which is why the group has stepped up efforts to provide kids with more learning experiences in nature, including a summer program for high school students. “We want to help youth find meaningful work in the woods, so they might become stewards in the future,” says Schipper. “New Canaan produces its share of doctors, lawyers and financiers, but we want to see naturalists and environmentalists rise from this town, too. Even if they don’t pursue an interest in the outdoors right away, they may come back to it later in life, having had a good experience when they were young.”
Preserving open space—and growing a vital and engaged grassroots organization—seem to be all about planting seeds. Patience helps, too. “If you really want to make a difference, you have to put in the time and energy,” says Schipper. “Land can go on forever, so when you’re working with it, you need to see the long view.”