College nears deal to conserve Battell lands

RIPTON — Middlebury College, the Vermont Land Trust and the U.S. Forest Service are putting the final touches on an intricate deal that will allow the institution to consolidate and permanently conserve approximately 2,100 acres of land in and around the college’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton.
College President Ron Liebowitz touched upon the deal last week as part of an exclusive interview with the Addison Independent that focused on the town-gown relationship during his 11 years as the institution’s top administrator. The conversation turned to the legacy that Liebowitz would be leaving as he and his family prepare to relocate to Boston, and he cited the impending conservation of the Battell Trust lands as one of the top accomplishments during his tenure.
While the outgoing president did not disclose financial terms and other fine details of the conservation plan, he did offer an overview of mechanics of a deal that required a substantial contribution from Middlebury College alum Louis Bacon ’79, who has established himself (and was recently recognized by the National Audubon Society) as one of the most conscientious and generous conservationists in the country.
The deal involves some contiguous land swaps with the USFS, to which the college sold some 30,000 acres of its Battell lands bequest during the Great Depression in order to construct Forest Hall. It involves conservation easements through the Vermont Land Trust. And it calls upon Bacon to contribute to an endowment fund that will essentially compensate the college for lost development rights on the 2,100 acres. Interest from the fund will be used to take care of the lands.
It is an arrangement that will still allow the college to improve its Bread Loaf campus, Liebowitz noted.
“The culmination is that we will conserve upwards of 2,100 acres of land in and around the Bread Loaf campus, and it will be conserved and preserved for educational and recreation purposes,” Liebowitz said. “We will be able to do certain things in a limited area to help the educational purposes of the Bread Loaf campus, if we want to build more academic buildings, if we want to update recreational (facilities) — Rikert (Nordic Center), for example — we can do that. But the vast majority of the land will not be touched.”
He credited Bacon for making what he called a “major” financial contribution.
“In order for this to happen, the board did not want to do this without any kind of financial protection — simply pointing to the 1930s when the college was able to sell this land during the Depression in order to build Forest Hall,” Liebowitz said. “So we needed to monetize that land to take away the potential development rights that would accrue to the college if it were to sell those 2,000 acres. So that’s why we engaged Louis Bacon — which I did over and over again — as a land conservationist who has done this in Long Island, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico and now doing it in the Bahamas.
“Luckily (Bacon) loved Bread Loaf, spent a lot of time at Bread Loaf as a student here, so it was perhaps an easier sale than it looked, but it took him a while to come around,” Liebowitz added.
The arrangement will also allow the college, through the land swaps, to codify its disparate Battell land holdings in the Ripton area.
“We hold several patches of land, up the Middlebury River, through Ripton and several other patches,” Liebowitz explained. “The Forest Service owns some land that breaks up our holdings in the Bread Loaf area, so we are now in negotiations for that, too. It’s been a long process, but we’re almost done; we are almost ready to sign.”
Liebowitz hopes to sign off on the deal before he leaves office on June 30.
Nationally renowned environmentalist and Middlebury College Schumann Distinguished Scholar Bill McKibben penned a piece about the genesis of the Battell lands conservation deal in the spring 2015 issue of Middlebury Magazine, a quarterly publication of the college.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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