MONTPELIER — For 40 years, the Vermont Land Trust has been singularly focused on protecting the state’s farm and forestland, helping to preserve nearly 2,000 parcels of property and 700,000 acres.
Starting next month, the Vermont Land Trust will entrust its mission to Nick Richardson, who replaces Gil Livingston as president of the 3,000-member organization.
It shouldn’t take the 39-year-old Richardson long to get up to speed on his new job. For the past five years, he was the Land Trust’s vice president of finance and enterprise.
Don’t look for Richardson to shake up the organization. He said in a wide-ranging interview that his goal is to build upon the Land Trust’s legacy and strengths.
“So, my priorities are about building and expanding upon the great work we have already done,” said Richardson, who was among roughly 70 candidates from across the country who applied for the job. “This isn’t taking the organization 180 degrees in a different direction.”
He said the Land Trust has been engaged in doing cutting-edge work in regards to its stewardship program, and innovative efforts at farm and forestland conservation.
Richardson said one challenge is making forestland conservation work, “more resilient in the face of climate change.”
On the farm side, he said there are changes taking place to the agricultural economy and the intergenerational transfer of farmland. He said the Land Trust can be a force for helping to make sure those transitions happen in a way that leave “really viable farms going forward.”
The organization is also committed to reaching out beyond its traditional base of support to engage “a broader set of the Vermont community.”
“Maybe folks who aren’t so much the landowners we’ve traditionally worked with,” he said. That includes communities that have been underserved by land conservation.
One such project is the Pine Island Community Farm in Colchester, that serves the New Americans community.
The core of the Land Trust’s mission is acquiring development rights in a way that supports the viability of the working landscape. “We’ve always done that, and we’ll continue to do that in the context of vital and healthy communities and sustainable economic development,” Richardson said.
Some critics may take issue with the trust’s mission as thwarting development, but Richardson said, while conservation easements do restrict development on particular parcels of land, those easements also “create a viable working landscape and can be supportive to really important industries that employ a lot of people.” He said that includes agriculture and forest industries and tourism.
“I think more broadly and more importantly we’ve helped to promote and support a viable and vibrant landscape that’s something that we all benefit from,” Richardson said.
In Bolton, the Land Trust was able to conserve nearly 3,000 acres for backcountry skiing.
Another notable project is the trust’s purchase of Bluffside Farm in Newport.
The Land Trust sought community input on the best public uses for the farm. Given its location, a recreation trail was one obvious choice that would connect with a trail north of the border. The Land Trust won a grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission that will go a long way to make the bike and recreation trail a reality, Richardson said.
The organization has a long-term commitment to ensure the success of the Bluffside Farm project, which includes a satellite office in Newport.
It’s those kinds of projects that Richardson said have wide public support throughout the state.
“It’s our view, and I think a lot of folks across Vermont would share this view, that conservation has a really important role to play in helping to shape a vibrant economic future for the state,” he said.
In Montpelier, he said the organization enjoys a broad base of support in the Legislature and in the governor’s office.
On the federal level, Richardson said there’s no question it’s a time of uncertainty. He said the Vermont Land Trust works with other organizations across the country to ensure the continued preservation of farm and forestland and other environmental protections.
Also on Richardson’s radar is water quality and the problem of runoff from farms. The trust works with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board to support the inclusion of riparian buffers on conservation easements. “This is a way for us to make sure there is a significant buffer that goes along waterways on working farms so that nutrient management can be done in an effective way,” he said.
He said forested uplands, that can also have a significant impact on water quality, need to be managed as well.
A graduate of the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, Richardson joined the Land Trust five years ago. He previously worked for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. and Encore Redevelopment, a Burlington renewable energy firm. Since joining the Land Trust, Richardson has played a key role in growing the Farmland Access Program and making carbon offsets a viable option for forestland owners. He is also credited with increasing the trust’s financial ability to acquire land for conservation.
“We were looking for a leader who could both build upon the rich 40-year history of VLT’s conservation work and offer a fresh and compelling vision for the future,” Walter Poleman, chairman of the VLT Board of Trustees, said in a statement.
Richardson will oversee a $5 million operating budget and a staff of 48, plus two Americorp volunteers. Funding comes primarily from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and VLT memberships.
The Vermont Land Trust was founded in 1977 by Rick Carbin. He was succeeded by Darby Bradley and then Gil Livingston, who is retiring Dec. 1.