Last spring, Mad River Valley families received worrying news about their beloved Mad River Park. For 12 years, children learned to play soccer and lacrosse on this privately owned land, leased to the Town of Waitsfield. Now the 10-acre property was going up for sale.

“If we lose these fields, there is nothing to take their place,” said Fayston parent Gretchen Frank when she heard the news. “In a mountain community, open and flat land is precious and rare.”

The Mad River Valley Recreation District wanted to buy the land, so it contacted VLT. Together, the organizations created a fundraising plan and VLT lent its expertise in land transactions. A grant was secured from the state’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, four towns pitched in, and within four months the local fundraising goal was exceeded. The recreation district bought the land in September.

VLT’s mission is to connect people to the land. It mostly does this by protecting farms and forests with conservation easements that limit development and protect natural and ecological resources. But sometimes this method isn’t the best way to achieve the mission.

“We are thinking broadly about how people in Vermont relate to land,” explains VLT’s Elise Annes. “We are taking more time to listen to what communities say they need, and as a result, thinking creatively about how we can help them meet their goals.”

“Even though they are six recreation fields with little ecological value, we saw they were a really important part of the community,” adds VLT’s Liza Walker. “We don’t always need to have a permanent stake in a property to succeed at our mission.”

Supporting farms by supporting a market

While these out-of-the-box projects are increasingly more common for VLT, they are not new. For over a decade, VLT has worked with the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market (BAFM) to secure land for shopping and parking.

The market is the place to go for vegetables, meats, syrup, and whatever else can be produced on local farms and forests. It provides a park-like atmosphere along Whetstone Brook. The idyllic setting was one of the reasons it was chosen by Yankee Magazine as the “Best Farmers’ Market in Vermont” in 2017.

Farmers holding herbs, veggies, flowers and syrup

“On a large scale, the market makes fresh, local food easily and directly available to the community on a regular basis,” says BAFM’s Susan Dunning. “It’s also a gathering place. People come here and have lunch, hang out and meet other people. It fosters a sense of community and brings people together.”

For decades, the market ran on multiple leased properties and had a serious lack of parking. Since 2006, VLT has helped the market with planning, general facilitation, and fundraising. Today, though it still leases one parcel, BAFM is the only farmers’ market in Vermont to own land.

For VLT, supporting the market supports the farm economy. “The market vendors make use of over 800 acres of farmland in Windham County,” says VLT’s Joan Weir. “This is true community development in the sense that we are supporting long-term farming activity in ways other than direct conservation.”

A Trail for Everyone

In Worcester, an accessible trail is being planned by the Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) on land donated to it by VLT.

Within a 5,400-parcel of forestland VLT owns in Worcester and Elmore, winds an extraordinary stretch of the North Branch of the Winooski River. Dotted by cascades and natural swimming holes, the one-mile section of river is flanked by an old roadbed and overhung with verdant forest. The former landowners, VRC, and VLT all wanted to provide meaningful recreational access along the river by creating a trail.

North Branch of the Winooski - waterfall cascading over rocks

“It’s right off Route 12, close to Montpelier, and in the backyard of many of our communities. But once you are on the trail, it feels like you are in the wilderness,” says the VRC’s Richarda Ericson.

Once completed, a significant portion of the one-mile North Branch Cascades Trail will be accessible to all ages and abilities, while being owned and managed by VRC.

“Sometimes we achieve our mission with conservation easements; other times we achieve it through partnerships,” says VLT’s Siobhan Smith. “In this case, VRC is better suited to create and manage a path given their experience. It made good sense for us to work with them.”

Trail permitting is nearly complete and VRC is involving the public in the trail’s vision and hand’s on development. This involvement is key to its future, says Richarda: “Our hope is that the kids who are going there today feel invested and someday bring their kids back.” 

This commitment to the future of the land ties all of these projects and partnerships together. Though the conservation approach may differ, the goal remains the same—to save the land that makes Vermont special.

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2018 Winter Newsletter. Story written by Lori Duff. Soccer photo by Gordon Miller; farmers’ market photo by Caleb Kenna; cascades photo by Shelby Perry.