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September 27, 2016
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Barbara Yeaman: legacy of a lifetime

Photos by Sandy Long After falling in love with the Delaware River, Barbara Yeaman realized that protecting it would require protecting the lands that comprise its watershed. “One of the most satisfying rewards is the sense of awe and gratitude that comes from seeing the natural beauty and unspoiled views that still exist along the river and within its surrounding counties,” she notes.

UPPER DELAWARE REGION — An icon of conservation leadership, whose life will positively affect the future of the Upper Delaware Region for perpetuity, is greeting the next stretch of her journey with grace and her characteristic determination to continue making a difference.

Now 88, Barbara Yeaman, who founded the Delaware Highlands Conservancy (the Conservancy) in 1994 at age 70, is relocating her primary residence to Charlottesville, VA, nearer to her daughter, Suzanne and son, Bill. The move is precipitated in part by the development of an autoimmune disorder that is worsened by cold climates, as well as the increasing challenges of managing her lovely old farmhouse and barn in Milanville, PA.

Yeaman, of course, is not about to let such stumbling stones stop her, and has already begun making inroads to conservation organizations in that area. The challenges have, however, altered her course and necessitated a carefully considered decision to sell the beloved property along the Delaware River that spurred her determination to establish the land trust, which has since succeeded in protecting more than 14,000 acres of land throughout the four-county region it serves—Pike and Wayne counties in Pennsylvania and Sullivan and Delaware counties in New York.

Yeaman launched the fledgling land trust, which permanently protects land by working with willing landowners through conservation easements, by placing an easement on her 12-acre property. A young local family will now call the special place home as they abide by the protections of that easement.

Throughout her life, Yeaman has championed land, water and habitat conservation, as well as education, springing from her love of rivers. Born near Pittsburgh, PA, her career took her across the U.S. before bringing her to Milanville. Yeaman served as a water conservation coordinator at the EPA in Washington, DC where she oversaw the production of films and educational materials about water conservation and reuse. During World War II, she earned her pilot’s license to qualify for the Women Air Force Service Pilots.

She credits her partner, Ed Wesely, with introducing her to the river that would become the focus of her most important activist work ever. The pair established the Butterfly Barn at the property to teach families about the natural world through puppet shows and educational programming.

In the early 1980s, when Yeaman bought her home, the National Park Service (NPS) was drafting its management plan for the Upper Delaware River and encountering strong private property rights opposition. Some residents feared their properties would become worthless. Yeaman believed that preserving special lands, wildlife habitats and prime scenic parcels would make the region more attractive, but sensed the need for a unique preservation tool. While serving on the Citizens’ Advisory Council for the NPS, she felt that starting a land trust could be the right alternative.

In order to define the territory, Yeaman focused on her beloved river and the boundaries of its watershed—the area of land that surrounds and drains into the Upper Delaware River. Over time, Yeaman has seen a positive change when it comes to land conservation. “People are more aware of the need for it, of what can be lost,” she said.

While the Conservancy has received its own set of awards, Yeaman herself has been recognized with an Environmental Partnership Award by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and is one of only two women to receive the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Ralph W. Abele Conservation Heritage Award. Most recently, her work was acknowledged with the prestigious Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award from the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

On receiving the award, Yeaman shared a fitting quote from “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. “The world is already split open and it is in our destiny to heal it, each in our own way, each in our own time, with gifts that are ours.”