The Schneller Conservation Easement: From One Landowner to Another

August 15, 2023

By Beth Rigby

The Landowners

A small, beautiful parcel of land in Pine Bush was home to the Schnellers and their daughter Karen. Growing up, Karen spent every hour she could mucking around the forest behind her home. She attributes much of her appreciation of the land to her father, who worked as an environmental conservation officer for the DEC. (1) At the time, animal rehabilitations were scarce to come by; Karen and her father would often take on the rehabilitation responsibilities and aid the animals in any way they could. In her youth, Karen was regularly found with a triad of raccoons trailing behind her. Karen and her entourage of critters would explore the bounty of beauty in her backyard bogs.

She spent years identifying the wildlife she observed in their natural habitats, particularly the birds, reptiles, and amphibians. She was fascinated by the turtles on the property. To identify and track the turtles, Karen lightly filed unique patterns onto their shells. This allowed her to monitor the turtles’ growth and population. She especially loved to observe spotted turtles, or Clemmys guttata – which are currently on the NYS DEC Species of Special Concern list. She noted that their survival requires small bodies of water, mud, and sunny slopes for nesting sites. With declining water quality, fewer connected bodies of water, increased development, reduced marshes/bogs, and folks removing turtles to keep as personal pets, the spotted turtle population is declining. At an early age, she recognized the importance of preserving a diversity of natural habitats.


When the time came to sell the property, Karen’s biggest fear was that someone was going to purchase the property and promptly chop down all the trees. “The property was part of me,” Karen said earnestly. “It was extremely hard to part with my past. The only way I could think to do it was … through a conservation easement.” She urged her mother to consider placing a conservation easement on their land before selling it. Her mother resisted, noting that it would affect the selling price of the property among other difficulties. Nonetheless, Karen persisted, “I wasn’t giving up on that one,” she said with a laugh. Despite Eileen Schneller’s initial opposition, they moved forward with the conservation easement documentation. Although small, the land is a part of an incredible wetland complex, and worth protecting.

Harriet and Stephen

The Schnellers decided to interview the potential buyers to ensure that the land would be taken care of properly. At the time, Harriet and Stephen Lettis were in the market for a new home. Harriet and Stephen, a lovely married couple, bonded over their love of nature. Stephen grew up hiking, fishing, and camping; he much preferred to spend his time catching snakes and frogs. His favorite memories are spending all day at the beach and then putting on a fresh pair of blue jeans to comfortably sit by the fire. Similarly, Harriet spent her free time exploring the forests near her home. She absolutely adored watching the local birds flutter and sing, particularly the wood thrushes.

The couple had looked at over 100 properties, the Schneller’s parcel being one of them. When Harriet saw the beech trees and heard the wood thrush’s song, she knew it was the right place. Karen loved their enthusiasm, and accepted Lettis’s bid. The property sold at selling price; “Those fears [of a conservation easement hindering the selling of land] were completely unfounded,” Karen noted. Harriet and Stephen continue to enjoy the outdoors today; they spend their time camping, walking, and gardening.

The Land and The Life

The property itself is a wedge of woods in Pine Bush. Of that wedge, a portion is hardwood forest, and a portion is forested wetland. A wide dirt path winds down their property through the woods. In the past, beehives were harvested along the beaten track- some of which were still active when Harriet and Stephen purchased the property. Harriet has aptly named the private trail ‘Beehive Drive’. The Dwaar Kill meanders around the property boundary, providing a habitat for a plethora of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. A pond rich in species sits near the center of the parcel. Harriet grows a variety of native species in her flourishing garden: including redbud, witch hazel, viburnum, red twig dogwood, butterfly bushes, irises, pachysandra, and myrtle.

The landowners, both past and present, enjoy(ed) observing the wonderful wildlife that wander through the woods. They have seen everything from crawfish to bald eagles. Harriet and Stephen have seen two foxes playing with one another around their outdoor fire pit. They looked at each other with a combination of fear and admiration as they described the black bear and yearlings that saunter through their yard from time to time. Deer frequently return to their parcel; recently two twin fawns appeared with their mother. Harriet and Stephen have observed fisher cats, red tailed hawks, blue birds, owls, ducks, turtles, garter snakes, black snakes, frogs, turkeys, and great blue herons roam around the land they call home. Karen studied the wildlife on the property and provided a list of birds, reptiles and fish that inhabit the forests and neighboring stream, many of which have been observed by Harriet and Stephen. In addition to the species listed above, the list includes spotted turtles, eastern painted turtles, snapping turtles, northern two lined salamanders, spotted salamanders, northern red salamanders, ruby throated hummingbirds, northern mockingbirds, robins, Canadian geese, American crows, sparrows, and a variety of woodpeckers.

The Advice

When asked if the couple had any advice for landowners who are contemplating permanently protecting their property, Harriet immediately said “Do it.” With a laugh she continued by saying all landowners should fully understand what protecting the land entails before approaching a Land Trust. “We love that the property is protected, we really do,” Harriet said proudly. Stephen echoed her response, and went on to say that initially they had concerns about getting work done on the house. He appreciates that the easement allows them to both protect the land they love and freely maintain the house they call home. Karen’s passion for land protection runs through every fiber of her being. As a wetland specialist, natural resource consultant, writer, and activist, she dedicates her time to protecting ecosystems and educating the public on habitats and natural resources. She hopes sharing her story will encourage others to create connections with the land, and consider preserving it.

(1) The title “Environmental Conservation Officer” did not exist at the time, but this is the modern equivalent to his position.