An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Q&A: Fritz Schroeder

Fritz Schroeder promotes the Lancaster Conservancy’s Lancaster Water Week in this file photo. (Source: Provided)

Fritz Schroeder is the incoming president and CEO of the Lancaster Conservancy, taking over from Phil Wenger on July 1.

“I am excited to lead us forward,” he said, noting that Lancaster County’s future depends on addressing the significant environmental challenges it faces.

The nonprofit land trust has three main focus areas: Land protection, stewardship and public engagement.

Since 2017, the Conservancy has succeeded in protecting more than 2,000 acres along the Susquehanna River in Hellam Township, York County. It is seeking to protect at least another 500 acres, Schroeder said, and hopefully more. It’s the single largest forested area remaining in the triangle between York, Lancaster and Harrisburg.

The organization offers a universally accessible trail at its Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve, and envisions adding them at a couple of other properties. This year, it will break ground on one at the Clark Nature Preserve, complete with blinds that wounded veterans will be able to use during deer season.

The Conservancy wants “to make nature accessible for all abilities, all age groups and all people within our community,” Schroeder said.

“Fritz is the right person at the right time,” Conservancy Board Chair Sara Lamichane said in a statement. “He has proven his capabilities, and the board is confident he can build off the momentum and growth the organization has experienced in recent years.”

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

One United Lancaster: Could you talk about your transition to CEO?

Schroeder: Under Phil’s leadership, we’ve protected a lot of land in the last eight-plus years. We are a land trust, and our No. 1 goal will be to continue to protect forested lands in Lancaster County and along the Susquehanna River in York County.

Beyond that, we manage more than 8,000 acres on 50 nature preserves. A lot of time and effort is going into this: How do we best manage those nature preserves and open them to the public so that they can use them 365 days per year? How do we restore them to their highest and best ecological value?

Our stewardship team is actively restoring wetlands and working on stream corridors and reforesting. In some of our nature preserves, there were many invasive non-native trees, where they’re now planting native trees and shrubs to completely reforest certain parcels. It’s habitat restoration. …

We’re also doing a lot of education and outreach into the community around how smaller parcel owners and smaller property owners restore their habitats, whether it’s a farmer who’s got a 10-acre parcel of woods next to their ag fields, or whether it’s a resident in Lancaster Township, or Lancaster city. What can you do with your parcel of land, to create better, stronger habitats?

There’s great concern around the collapse of our insect populations. Of course, we’re all really aware of what’s happening with the bee populations and the Monarch butterfly populations, for example, but those are essentially indicators of a greater issue that we’re facing, that’s really centered around restoring our habitats.

So while we’re trying to do that on our 8,000 acres, we’re also doing a lot of education and outreach around how we can all play our part. That’s a major focus of mine moving forward.

We are also really focused on access. How do we make sure that more people can access nature in future years? Everything from parking lots and trails to how people find our nature preserves.

OUL: How did you start working with the Conservancy?

Fritz Schroeder

Schroeder: I started as Director of Urban Greening, a role which was really focused on clean water and stormwater issues. We partnered for a long time with the city of Lancaster, to help them implement their green infrastructure plan … everything from community tree plantings to street tree plantings to distribution of native trees.

We would also help (other entities) secure funding to do distribution and outreach. We helped form the Lancaster Tree Tenders program. We would help oversee initiatives that the city was going to take on.

The city has a pretty mature green infrastructure program at this point, but this was at the very beginning, where they didn’t have a full stormwater department. So we would do a lot of community outreach. If there was going to be a large project happening in the communities — if they wanted to do a green alley, or they were working on one of the new parks where they’re putting in permeable surfaces and bioretention areas — we would do a lot of the outreach in the community. We’d hand fliers out door to door, inviting people to community meetings where they could learn more about the city strategies and pull the community together.

OUL: I’ve been hearing about (other) municipalities’ work on stormwater projects. Is that a county-wide thing that the Conservancy gets involved in?

Schroeder: Initially, (the stormwater program) was very focused on the city. But then we realized that there were a lot of opportunities countywide, that there were other urbanized areas that were facing similar challenges. In the city, it’s a combined sewer overflow; for the rest of the county, it’s mostly an MS4 designation.

Clean water mini-glossary:

  • BMPs: Short for “best management practices,” these are initiatives landowners can take to improve water quality, such as planting buffers of vegetation along streams.
  • Green infrastructure: Installations, such as curbside rain gardens, that absorb rainfall and snowfall and limit the rate of runoff into sewers.
  • Combined sewer: A system that handles both sewage and stormwater runoff. Many combined systems are susceptible to overflows during large storms, resulting in untreated sewage flowing into waterways.
  • MS4: Short for “Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System,” a sewer system designed primarily for stormwater runoff. Areas with an MS4 system have two sewer networks: one for sewage, one for stormwater.
  • Sewage: Waste and wastewater from toilets, sink drains and so on. Sewage requires treatment before it is disposed of.

We realized that there was a lot of implementation that was happening on the ground — different municipalities, different townships, the city of Lancaster — but there was a general lack of awareness amongst the community around the challenges of our polluted streams and rivers.

We decided that we wanted to focus on awareness, so we launched Lancaster Water Week. That was seven years ago now.

OUL: What is Lancaster Water Week?

Schroeder: It’s really about trying to bring all of our community partners together, and trying to raise awareness countywide around the importance of our streams and rivers, and why this is so important to our community, not only from the federal regulations and the challenges we face.

Lancaster County is the No. 1 polluter to the Susquehanna River, which is then, in turn, the No. 1 polluter to the Chesapeake. (We wanted to highlight) the many benefits that we would reap, if we did restoration here at home; if we focused on cleaning up the streams and rivers, how important it would be for our community to be able to enjoy those waterways as resources for fishing and paddling and swimming. They drove our agricultural economy for generations: They could drive our economy well into the future.

OUL: You mentioned pollution. And I’ve seen reports about sediment that municipalities and other partners are trying to manage. For example, they promote agricultural BMPs. But they have some challenges.

Schroeder: A lot of our partners focus on ag, and we don’t. … From a Conservancy perspective, big picture, we’re really focused on the non-ag land.

We’re focused on any forested lands that still exist, that are out there unprotected or under threat of development. We realized that if we protect those forested lands, we’re helping to protect streams and rivers. …

Wherever you find impacted forest land, you often find that water exiting that forested parcel is much cleaner than when it entered, just because of how a forest functions and how it’s able to filter water.

OUL: What’s the vehicle for protecting forested land?

Schroeder: We have a land protection team that is always out there talking in the community. We’re always looking for lands that come up for sale. …

Our highest priority is to buy parcels adjacent to existing nature preserves. But in the last couple of years, there are a couple examples of where we’ve purchased land away from our nature preserves, because of the importance of the location.

One was up at Speedwell Forge near the Speedwell Lake, where we were able to purchase 90 acres at auction. That was with the express purpose of not only protecting that land, preventing it from being developed, but also protecting the streams flowing into that lake. It’s right next to a county park, so it’s next to protected land. …

If it’s a million-dollar property, about half the money typically comes in the form of public funds, often from the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and we apply for grants for those. (The rest) of the money comes from private funding.

OUL: You have about 50 nature preserves?

Schroeder: Yes, between Lancaster and York counties, 50 nature preserves. A lot of them are next to other protected areas like parks.

There’s a lot of protected farmland, and there are certain areas that have been traditionally hard to develop, where there are slopes and grades, like a lot of the Susquehanna River areas.

That’s where we’ve really focused a lot of time and effort, in part because of the strategic importance that that resource plays for our communities.

OUL: Could you talk about the Susquehanna Riverlands State Park project?

Schroeder: We are the external lead on Susquehanna River Lands Conservation landscape, which is a DCNR program that prioritizes protection and restoration of the river corridor. That means protecting natural forested lands, and then managing them for their highest ecological value, then building out public access for people to come out and enjoy the incredible resource of the outdoors that we have along the Susquehanna River.

We have two nature preserves in Hellam Township: Wizard Ranch and Hellam Hills. In that area, a 700-acre parcel came up for sale. After we put it under agreement,  we were going through the process of attempting to raise the money (to complete the purchase). In conversations with all of our partners, including DCNR, a conversation began around the possibility of this actually becoming a state park, acquiring it from us for that purpose, which we thought was fantastic. Our No. 1 priority is to protect land. We don’t need to manage it all.

Through many conversations with DCNR, and then with the governor, we were able to make that fantastic announcement last year: the state officially acquiring it and turning it into a state park.

That essentially becomes part of what is around 2,000 acres that are currently protected in that region. We’re going to continue to attempt to keep that going. There’s a lot of wonderful forested land there, so we’re going to continue to try to work with neighbors and partners to protect as much of that land as possible in the years to come.