After founding the popular Lancaster-based restaurant chain Isaac’s, Phil Wenger stepped into the world of environmental advocacy as president & CEO of the Lancaster Conservancy.
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“We have been leading the charge over the past few years as unsustainable development has continued to put up warehouses, build out housing, and just take over the landscape,” he said.
Beginning July 1, he is shifting to a part-time role focused on special projects. They include raising money for the Conservancy’s endowment and building support in York County.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
One United Lancaster: What is an accomplishment you’re most proud of from your tenure at the Conservancy?
Phil Wenger: Our organization is 54 years old this year. I’ve been here eight years, and in those eight years we doubled the amount of land that we acquired and protected. We did as much as they did in the whole first 45 years of the organization.
We really accelerated this idea that we need to set land aside and we need to protect it as not only open space for us to go hike and interact with fish and bike, but also for all the creatures we share this planet with.
OUL: Have you always had a passion for this work?
Wenger: I founded Isaac’s and built the company chain out. We always tried to do a major recycling program and I use recycled products when I built our restaurant, so I always had an interest in it, but I’ve become increasingly concerned about the loss of biodiversity.
We used to see bugs on our windshields at night when we would drive. We used to go out with a flashlight and be able to capture lots of moths. We used to see many more types of birds. These are the visible things that we as humans interact with. They have been declining dramatically in my lifetime and that has increasingly made me want to protect our natural world. So I have become a lot more passionate in the last 10 years than I was prior to that.
OUL: Why is it so essential that we have a robust conservancy effort here in Lancaster?
Wenger: When you interview young people, you will discover the most important issue to them right now is an environment and dealing with our environmental issues. In protecting land and teaching people the value of the power of nature, the Conservancy helps take on those issues locally.
We protect trees, as an example, and trees store carbon. So, if you want to do something about carbon storage and climate change, do it locally by helping us protect more acres of trees from being cut down.
This issue of the environment has really elevated in the community, and the Conservancy has decided that we’re going to capture that wave of interest. We are capturing the impulses of the young people and the elderly people who see their Lancaster County that they loved being changed and destroyed, and we’re saying, ‘support the Conservancy.’
This is our time. We are getting more community support than we’ve ever imagined would be possible for an environmental organization like ours.
OUL: What is your five to 10 year vision?
Wenger: Going forward, we have to get more involved with our educational efforts in helping private property owners do the right thing on their property.
For instance, a big mowed lawn is a huge status symbol. So, if I have a house and I have 10 acres of mowed lawn you think I’m rich and I’ve got this beautiful green lawn.
But the reality is that a green lawn is basically a desert. It’s been cleared of all the broadleaf weeds, so there are no dandelions or anything there that might benefit a pollinator. It’s been sprayed for every insect that exists, so you don’t have to have ants or any kinds of larvae that birds or robins would eat.
We have to teach people how to take that 10 acres of lawn and actually plant a whole bunch of really interesting plants that butterflies love to use to reproduce, that birds like to eat the seeds from, that the pollinators can come to and multiply. Then we can begin to reverse these declines that we’ve been seeing.
So I want to rewild Lancaster County and get private property owners involved — not only people with 10 acres of lawns, but our shopping centers, corporate centers and golf courses.
I think over the next five to 10 years, we are going to take our support for the natural environment out to private property owners and try to influence their behavior.
OUL: How can people get involved in the Conservancy’s work?
Wenger: We have a very up-to-date and active website. There’s a site there that allows you to register to volunteer. Our website also has lots of information about places you can go hike. You don’t have to give up Saturday to come out and help us on one of our nature preserves, you can just go out and interact with nature and then become passionate about it. …
We are adding hundreds of volunteers. We have a full-time volunteer coordinator now and we are doing many more partnerships with community folks.
We have a nature center just south of Lancaster called Climbers Run and we are bringing school groups in there. We are bringing in city organizations. We’re taking kids and adults and introducing them to nature and getting them excited and passionate about protecting this very complex web of life, which we completely lose when we’re on our video screens all the time. …
I always encourage people to go down to King of Prussia and to look at what has happened to the communities outside of Philadelphia that have no natural lands left and no forests. They have a couple of city parks but that’s it.
Think about that build-out that happened over a 50-year period of time, and then think about what’s coming to Lancaster County.