With a crystal ball in October 1990, Rob Etgen couldn’t have pictured what the next 30 years would look like at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. That was when he became ESLC’s executive director and its first staff member. Fast forward to 2020, as Etgen and the land conservancy enter their 30th year together, they’ve created a track record of success anchored by preserved land, innovative town planning projects, and a growing professional staff who are carrying on ESLC’s mission of improving the quality of life on the Eastern Shore through conservation.
“One of the things I am most proud of with ESLC is the sheer volume and innovation in land protection,” Etgen said. “We hold 299 conservation easements and we’ve also bought another 25 properties, using all different kinds of leverage and financing vehicles and other creative approaches. We’ve been really getting it done for a very long time. A lot of the things that we have pioneered are now thought of as standard operating procedure, including the state of Maryland’s award-winning Rural Legacy program, which they patterned after one of our programs.”
Etgen grew up on a small creek off the Magothy River in Severna Park. Through the 1970s he saw development change the idyllic place of dip-netting, fishing, and exploring the outdoors, into strip malls, parking lots, and polluted water. He found solace and inspiration in seeing what Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources did with saving Wye Island and turning it into a natural resources management area. Conservation and preservation of wildlife habitat and farmland became a model for Etgen, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in forest ecology from West Virginia University and a law degree from the University of Maryland, and he was running the land trust assistance program for Maryland Environmental Trust when he helped get ESLC up and running. When ESLC advertised for a director, he applied, and it has been a historic match for Etgen and the organization.
It didn’t take long to get to work.
“One of our first easements was from a working dairy farm up near Worton,” Etgen said. “The farmer, who I am still really close with, he put his land in easement and then he talked to all his friends and we got a lot of land in that area. And it’s still one of our most successful areas.”
Some properties come quickly and some take longer. Ben-Lee Farm is a 1,200 acre farm outside Church Hill. ESLC worked to protect it since the early 1990s, sending materials and hoping to connect, but the owners didn’t live on the property and weren’t accessible. In 2017, the property came up for sale and ESLC bought it, later selling the property to Maryland DNR.
“We’ve never been able to get close to this property, and it’s roughly 60% of the upper watershed for Brown’s Branch off the Chester River, it’s so big,” Etgen said. “It turns out it’s a prime spawning area for the Brook Lamprey, a state-endangered species which is a native lamprey of the Chesapeake Bay.”
But they weren’t the only rare species in the stream: there were also dwarf wedgemussels, which are a federally-endangered species, only located in a couple streams off the Chester River and in a handful of streams in Massachusetts. And the mussels and lampreys have a symbiotic relationship with each other.
“So this particular property, we didn’t even know it going in, but ends up being a key symbiotic spawning area for a two endangered species,” Etgen said. “And that just tells me a bit of what we don’t know.”
Over the years, ESLC has broadened their portfolio beyond land conservation when it comes to making the Shore a better place to live. In the land conservancy’s 2000 strategic plan, the board was looking at the pace of conservation and the region’s pace of development. And it started to focus on the towns of the region.
“We felt like in addition to preserving land, we must have the best, most livable, exciting towns that will be magnets for growth,” Etgen said. “And we’ve got to use the economic system and market systems and consumer preferences to drive toward our mission. So we started working in towns doing parks and trails—we’ve done a bunch of parks and trails like in Federalsburg, St. Michaels, Maryland Avenue in Cambridge.”
ESLC’s headquarters, the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton, is about to celebrate its five-year anniversary. ESCC is home to multiple environmentally focused organizations and together can share information and function cooperatively.
“We knew we needed to walk the talk of what we’re doing,” Etgen said. “I really admire the Board’s decision — let’s go into a troubled or transition neighborhood; let’s bring conservation to a whole new audience; let’s take our jobs downtown where we can have a much more limited carbon footprint for our day-to-day work. So that’s the conservation center and similar to what we are trying to do in Cambridge with the Packing House is just really show how we should be developing on the Shore.”
Getting the Packing House project finished is one of ESLC’s current project-level goals, as well as completing a substantial amount of land protection that they have in their pipeline. Long-term, they are looking beyond Maryland’s Eastern Shore and engaging partners in Delaware and Virginia. The Delmarva Oasis is an initiative to preserve 50% of the peninsula by 2030.
What began 30 years ago with a focus on preserving land has expanded to become a regional resource for town planning, coastal and watershed resiliency, and cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability.
“As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve become a lot more than just land preservation,” Etgen said. “Not everyone knows all the things we do and how they all connect — we work across land and towns, and in every case, we work with people. What we are doing is preserving a way of life on the Shore.”