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August 10, 2023

Schuylkill Center reveals donors who gave $3 million to preserve Roxborough's Boy Scout Tract

Jessica and Joanna Berwind had remained anonymous for the last eight months while Natural Lands secured the development rights to 24-acre plot

Environment Preservation
Schuylkill Center Donors Bastiaan Slabbers/Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

The Schuylkill Center has permanently preserved the Boy Scout Tract, a 24-acre plot of land in Upper Roxborough, thanks to a $3 million donation from a pair of sisters, Joanna and Jessica Berwind.

The $3 million donation that allowed the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education to permanently preserve a 24-acre plot in Upper Roxborough came from two sisters who have long supported the organization.

The Boy Scout Tract sits across Hagy's Mill Road from the Schuylkill Center's 340-acre campus. Last year, the center revealed it wanted to sell the property for development, but after community outcry, that plan was abandoned. The donation by Jessica and Joanna Berwind was announced in December and allows the the Schulkill Center to place a conservation easement on the property, which eliminates all development rights to the land.

The donors remained anonymous during the last eight months as the Schuylkill Center worked with Natural Lands, the region's oldest conservation organization, to finalize the easement. The donation, made through Vanguard Charitable, is the largest in the Schuylkill Center's 58-year-history. 

"We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of the Berwind sisters," said Marilyn Tinari, president of the Center's board of trustees. "Our duty as stewards is to engage with the earth sustainably, and sometimes, as in this case, not to engage at all but to act as guardians to preserve it as is. This gift will enable us to secure in perpetuity a significant piece of open space for Philadelphia." 

The Berwind sisters hold positions at the Berwind Corp., a family-owned, investment management company in Center City. The company, founded in 1886, owns six businesses that focus on pharmaceuticals, land management and medical packaging. The sisters also serve as co-directors of Spring Point Partners, a community impact firm that invests in companies and causes dedicated to social justice, animal welfare and clean water, according to its website

Jessica Berwind worked as an art dealer for 20 yeas and operated a contemporary art gallery in Philadelphia. Joanna Berwind mentors aspiring entrepreneurs at Babson College in Massachusetts. 

"The Berwind sisters and their families are eager to see the center leverage this gift into becoming a world-class center for generations to come through its people, programming and campus, enriching the local community at a time when development continues to replace green space in the city," the families said in a joint statement. 

Opened in 1965, the Schuylkill Center offers programs in environmental education, art and land stewardship, and hosts a summer camp each year. It houses a wildlife clinic, which provides care to sick or injured animals until they can be safely returned to their natural habitats. 

In a series of memos in early 2022, the Schuylkill Center outlined several plans to potentially sell the Boy Scout Tract for development. The land plot – an area where Boy Scouts previously camped – runs along Port Royal Avenue, ending at Eva Street in Roxborough. It was donated to the Schuylkill Center 40 years ago by founding member Eleanor Houston Smith. 

Smith had given permission to the Schuylkill Center to sell the land in a crisis to maintain the conservation of the organization's main campus, according to Save The Boy Scout Tract, a group of community activists that began campaigning for the land's preservation last year. As news of the potential sale prompted public outcry, Vanguard Charitable reached out to the Schuylkill Center about a potential donation to save the land. 

In September, the Schuylkill Center tabled development proposals until it could determine whether the charitable organization would agree to a deal.

"This is a momentous occasion in the center's history, and this historic gift allows us to meet the future with a vision we can put into action," said Erin Mooney, the Schuylkill Center's interim executive director. "This deep investment in the mission of the Schuylkill Center is transformational for the center and the city of Philadelphia." 

Schuylkill Center leaders have said they may use the donation to improve the land, which has been adversely impacted by invasive species, deer overgrazing and climate change. They also said they may make staff investments and improve the aging visitor center and wildlife clinic.