Michael Dunn's property on Lake Memphremagog is a haven for wildlife and wildlife enthusiasts
Michael Dunn was a successful stockbroker from a wealthy Montreal family. During the separatist unrest in the 1970s, he took refuge at Eagle Point Farm, his grandparents' summer home on Lake Memphremagog.
The 900-acre property straddles the Vermont–Québec border, and is a haven for wildlife and wildlife enthusiasts.
"My first contact with Michael wasn't that pleasant," recalls Steve Marsh, President and CEO of Community National Bank in Derby. "He was quite a letter-writer at the time and he had opinions about how we should be doing things at the bank."
When Steve found himself on the same local development board as Michael, carpooling to meetings was too convenient to pass up. Over the course of sharing rides, Steve and Michael became great friends.
Of Michael's passions, Steve says, it was clear that he cherished his land the most.
"A few years ago my wife and I sold our house so we could move closer to my elderly mother," Steve recalls. "When I asked Michael if he might sell us part of his land, he said, 'Steve, I'm not a seller of land; I'm a collector of land.'"
If "collector" gives you the impression that Michael preserved idle land, think again. "He loved for other people to use the land for hiking, hunting, and fishing," says Steve. "A local bird-dog club held their field trials there. A group of hot-air balloonists used it as a jumping off point for an annual trip." Some of the land was also rented for hay.
In September 2007, Michael died suddenly of a heart attack. In his will he had left his beloved land as a gift to the public—with an unusual stipulation. If the U.S. and Canadian governments failed to accept ownership within three years, the land would be sold to the highest bidder and the revenue donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The race was on, but a lack of public attention and complicated financial issues made for a slow start.
The turning point finally came two years later thanks to Jake Wheeler, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin, a legal advisor to Michael's trustee, and a former member of the VLT Board of Trustees. Jake told VLT President Gil Livingston about the bequest and his concern about finding a willing agency to take ownership before the deadline.
While VLT stood to hold no interest in the land in the long-term, fulfilling Michael's vision of protecting the land's natural resources for public enjoyment was a no-brainer. "Every once in a while a truly spectacular piece of land comes around through some unusual circumstances," says Gil. "While it's abundantly clear how important this land is to the public, there was a gap in advocacy and understanding of the federal land-protection system required for this kind of transaction. It's been a perfect role for VLT."
Gil and others at VLT started making calls. They quickly assembled a report with conservation recommendations for the property. "To make this more appealing to the federal government, we did some research looking for a vehicle that would allow federal ownership, but local management," Gil explains.
In the end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will own the land as a unit of the nearby Mississquoi National Wildlife Refuge. "We think it's a great addition to the refuge system," says Janet Kennedy, Refuge Supervisor North for USFWS. "The diversity of habitats is remarkable. But what really compelled us to take on the responsibility of acquiring the land was the partnership opportunity—the ability to work with others who would manage the land."
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) will oversee the day-to-day management. The Québec Provincial government has accepted ownership and management of their side. A consortium of conservation organizations from both sides of the border—focused on improving water quality in the watershed and chaired by Vermont ANR Secretary Jonathan Wood—will support management of the property.
Local support for the transfer to federal ownership has been nearly unanimous; that's been encouraging, but not altogether surprising, given how much the land means to the community and to those that visit it. "For us to take ownership, Michael required that the property remain open for public use, and we take that to heart," says Janet.
"Steward is a perfect word for Michael Dunn," says Steve. "He had no heirs, no children. He just loved that land, the location, and his neighbors. That land was his legacy."