Conserving the Future

Led by president Darby Bradley, Vermont Land Trust diplomatically preserves the state's natural treasures and its economic viability

by Larissa K. Vigue

If it hadn't been for an afternoon in bankruptcy court, Darby Bradley might not have become president of the Vermont Land Trust, a 24-year-old non-profit based in Montpelier with a $3 million operating budget and combined assets of more than $17 million.

"If you can get people of good will to sit down, find common ground, and build on that, you can get something accomplished," says Darby Bradley, president of the Montpelier-based Vermont Land Trust. Bradley was chosen by the Burlington Free Press as the 1999 "Vermonter of the Year."

After graduating from the University of Washington law school in Seattle in 1972, Bradley, a New Hampshire native, joined a small legal practice near the campus. His career choice had been influenced by majoring in history at Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1967, and two subsequent years in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to New Hampshire Congressman Jim Cleveland. From 1967 to 1969, the tumult surrounding "Vietnam, the assassinations (and) marches on the Pentagon fueled my interest in law," he says.

Then came his day in court. For Bradley, the litigation was sheer drudgery. "These were good folks (who) needed good representation, but I thought, Why me?" says Bradley, who realized he didn't like the trial side of law, where positions become quickly polarized. An environmental mediation case involving a flood control-dam turned the tide, convincing him that he much preferred the pre-court, negotiation side of law. "It was marvelous," he recalls, "because people who had been at each other's throats finally sat down and started looking for common ground. Out of that came a solution that dealt with the real concerns."

That sentiment lies at the heart of the Vermont Land Trust, which Bradley TheBurlington Free Press's 1999 "Vermonter of the Year" has guided for 11 years. The Trust's new mission statement, adopted by its 13-member board of trustees in October 1999, says simply the trust will "conserve land for the future of Vermont." By late January, it had conserved more than 376,000 acres roughly 88,000 acres spread across 308 operating farms primarily by negotiating the sale or donation of development rights and conservation deeds, the latter of which are then held by the trust in perpetuity. In an age of rapid development, the real story is that the Vermont Land Trust brings people together as partners not as potential winners and losers in service to the land.

A 1999 study found that 97 percent of Vermont farmers who had conserved their land were either satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome. David Ferch, director of community relations, and Susan Hemmeter, director of development, are among 38 employed by VLT.

"People tend to be turf-oriented," says Bradley, who spends his free time caring for the woods behind his home and whose wife, Liisa (whom he met when his teacher-father moved the family to Finland for two years in the early 1960s), designs and develops gardens for a living. Though Bradley admits that an individual's deep attachment to the land is one of the challenges to the conservation movement, he appreciates the psychology behind it. "The character of a place is determined in large part by whether that community is connected with working lands," he explains. "The marketplace wasn't necessarily going to provide that. Regulation Act 250, zoning wasn't going to do it. So, something more was needed. That was the genesis of the Vermont Land Trust."

There are roughly 1,200 land trusts throughout the United States, many of them regional. Until the early 1980s, so was VLT. Fearing the loss of open space and agricultural lands to development, a group of Woodstock-area residents formed the Ottauquechee Regional Land Trust (ORLT) in 1977. Coincidentally, Bradley did the legal work to set it up. He had moved his family back to New England in 1974 to become assistant director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. In its first few years, ORLT publicized its mission and developed legal documents like the conservation easement, a deed that places restrictions on the development and use of the natural resources of a piece of land. Many normal agricultural or forestry practices, including adding certain buildings, are allowed.

In 1980, ORLT's board hired Rick Carbin as executive director and almost immediately took on projects outside the Ottauquechee region, which included "assisting the National Park Service in negotiating the purchase of easements for the Appalachian Trail from Sherburne to Norwich," according to a history posted on VLT's extensive website. Shortly thereafter, inquiries poured in from around the state prompting ORLT to change its name to Vermont Land Trust and establish satellite offices in Montpelier and Dummerston. At that point, it had helped conserve more than 6,500 acres around the state and Carbin was one of six staff members.

When Bradley was asked to organize the Vermont Natural Resources Council's annual meeting in 1975, he somewhat randomly chose wood energy as the topic. The following year, the Forest Resources Advisory Council was established, and Bradley, "knowing virtually nothing about forestry, got selected to be on it," he says. After spending considerable time in the woods with foresters and loggers, Bradley learned to appreciate land products in a more personal way. "If the wood is coming from our own forest, we who use it have to deal with the impact," he says.

VLT has conserved 376,000 acres of land. The non-profit organization has a $3 million operating budget and combined assets of more than $17 million. From left: Mark McEathron, central Vermont regional director, Shelly Weeks, office manager, and Bradley.

That appreciation galvanized Bradley's work with the two councils. "My approach was to try to bring people together around an issue. So often, positions get polarized and people don't credit the other point of view. If you can get people of good will to sit down, find common ground, and build on that, you can get something accomplished." He cites Vermont's Heavy Cutting Law as an example of meeting in the middle. "If clear-cutting liquidation had continued, there would have eventually been an overreaction. The Legislature would have clamped down and made the work of the forest products industry which is important to the state in economic terms more difficult."

In 1981, Carbin asked Bradley to join VLT as part-time legal counsel. The position turned full-time in 1982. Eight years later, upon Carbin's departure, Bradley became president. Does Bradley ever foresee his own departure? "They'll have to carry me out." he says with a grin.

Today, VLT has 4,500 members who provide nearly a quarter of the trust's funding. The organization employs 38 people, half of whom oversee administrative and technical details out of a former five-bedroom home and attached garage apartment on Montpelier's Bailey Avenue. The other half, mostly field staff, is scattered throughout five regional offices, including the Conservation Stewardship office in Woodstock, which has the solitary duty of monitoring the trust's more than 1,000 easements. Unless the community someday decides it needs a particular parcel of land and condemns the easement rights by eminent domain, the trust will be watching over it until, says Bradley with a chuckle, "the next Ice Age rumbles into town and pushes everything into Long Island Sound."

That's as it should be, says Frank Sands. Sands and his wife, Brinna, moved to Norwich from Massachusetts in 1978 and brought their company, King Arthur Flour, north six years later. For the past decade, they've conserved nearly 400 acres adjoining their property. Although relinquishing development rights might not have been in their best economic interest," says Sands, "we didn't do it for the money. We wanted to preserve the land. We're both in our 60s, so it's reassuring that whoever takes over will have to conform to those wishes. Vermont Land Trust is a security blanket for all the people who care about the future of Vermont."

The Sands' reason for conserving is typical, says Bradley. "Land conservation is timed more to life cycles than to economic cycles. People reach a stage where they are ready to make a decision about land. The organization needs to be ready to respond when that happens . . . (even if it) happens at a poor economic time."

Although the organization's stewardship endowment fundsmore than $5.5 million are professionally managed by the Vermont Community Foundation, "we need to add to that" security, says Bradley, noting that the trust is in the planning stages of a capital campaign to create a revolving acquisition fund and an operating endowment to support its 80 to 100 annual transactions. There's opportunity to do more, says Bradley, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. "We want to respond to everything, but if a landowner comes and says, 'I want to put an easement on 20 acres' unless it's the link to a trail system or (abuts) a local swimming hole we say no. That's difficult, but unless I can state the public benefit clearly, we tend not to do anything under 50 acres."

Without the 37 percent of foundation support contributing to the budget, Bradley estimates that the trust would do about half the work it does now. A major player is the Freeman Foundation in Stowe. "They recognize that there are costs associated with those projects, so they've made grants to upgrade our information management systems and mapping programs," says Bradley.

The foundation also said yes when Bradley and Bob Klein of the Vermont field office of the Nature Conservancy proposed a unique joint venture in 1998. (The trust enjoys a warm relationship with the conservancy, having co-managed several projects that combine the former's strengths in forestry and agriculture and the latter's expertise in biology and ecology.) "When the Atlas Timberlands 26,000 acres in northern Vermont came on the market," recalls Bradley, "we approached Freeman about (helping us) purchase the land and manage it as a working forest. We wanted to know what sustainable forestry really means in the field to take care of the ecological resources, but also try to use the land in ways to benefit the local community and economy." The two organizations are currently working out the management plan for the land, thanks to the confidence they have in each other.

Gov. Howard Dean has shown his appreciation for enterprising conservation efforts. He nominated Bradley and VLT for an Environmental Protection Agency merit award, which they won last year. During a news conference, Dean told reporters, "the Vermont Land Trust has really been the linchpin of the whole conservation movement (in Vermont)."

Part of the state's conservation movement was the establishment of the Vermont Housing Conservation Board (VHCB) in 1987, which makes money available for both affordable housing and land conservation. A significant portion of the funds used by VLT to purchase land and conservation easements come from VHCB. "A lot of people think housing and open space are mutually exclusive," says Bradley. "In a community, you need both. The binding concept is what makes a community livable."

That's the part of VLT's mission closest to trustee John Elder's heart. Elder, professor of English and environmental studies at Middlebury College, applauds the trust's "attempt to support rural communities and pay attention to the cultural and economic aspects of conservation work.

"Environmental and economic priorities, he says, needn't be opposed if you "take a multi-generational perspective factor(ing) issues of sustainability into every discussion, and focus on the interests of communities rather than being oriented primarily to individual entrepreneurs." That way, he says, the state can support forestry practices and lobby to expand federally protected wilderness. It can also celebrate the economic diversity of regions like Chittenden County and fight to keep farms in production, Elder explains.

Supporting farms has become the primary way that VLT finds common ground between conservation and economics. A full one-third of the trust's transactions involve the selling of development rights and conservation easements, most of which involve farmers. Initially, the trust had to overcome suspicion in the farm community. Concerns ranged from, "Is the Trust going to tell me how to run my farm," says Bradley, to worries that banks wouldn't lend money on conserved land. "The ball began to roll once they realized that our attitude is the farmer knows a hell of a lot more about his business than we do and that there are banks who suggest to farmers that they might want to consider the trust."

Lender and consultant Tom Bellavance, president of Ag Venture Financial Services in St. Albans and a VLT trustee since last summer, details the benefits: "Let's say the farmer sells the rights for $250,000. That money can be turned around and reinvested back into the farm. It can be used to reduce debt, for intergenerational transfer, to increase the herd. Without those funds, I don't believe we would have seen the growth and development of the farming community. The trust has made the difference between whether or not these farms would stay in business."

Backing him up is a 1999 study commissioned by the American Farmland Trust's Northeast field office in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which found that 97 percent of Vermont farmers who had conserved their land were satisfied with the outcome. Bob Baird, a North Chittenden farmer who conserved his 350-acre, fourth-generation property, is quoted in the study's report as saying, "Once the development rights are makes more sense to invest. Why fix up the barn if when you're done, it could be a subdivision?"

One of the few complaints Bradley does hear is, ironically, directly related to the high rate of satisfaction. An average farmland transaction takes 18 months because there are so many opportunities to delay, reconsider, or withdraw from the process. For some people, that's too long. But because the easement can only be strengthened, not weakened, Bradley prefers that the landowner be 100 percent satisfied. "I'd rather lose the project," he says, "than have somebody regret it."

Ethical sentiments like that one are very much on Bradley's mind these days. He and the board have embarked on a discussion about the trust's "responsibility in deciding when to conserve and when not to." The key, he says, involves bringing the community into the conversation. "When you've conserved 20 percent or more of a community," as in Shoreham, where the trust has helped conserve more than a dozen farms, "it's important to take into account its other needs. We may decide not to conserve a piece of land if that's where the community wants to grow."

As the trust nears a quarter-century of service, Bradley grows "more and more interested in the secondary impacts of land conservation." in other words, what conserving a piece of land has done to change life for its owner or the community. "I love the people side of this business," says Bradley, because negotiating for "something that allows a landowner or family to achieve something they deeply value transcends you. That keeps me motivated."

Originally published in March 2001 Business People-Vermont