As one of the pre-eminent educational institutions in the world, Yale has long prided itself in producing successive generations of world leaders. Recently, however, Yale’s own leadership abilities have come under criticism from students, faculty and the citizens of Maine in regard to its management of a large chunk of undeveloped forestland in northern Maine.
This property, located on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, is approximately 656,000 acres in size. It is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Currently Yale is embroiled in a conflict with the state of Maine over the terms of a proposed easement that would maintain private ownership of this property while allowing public recreational access to the area.
In effect, Yale is asking that the state of Maine pay the University and other affected landowners millions of dollars for development rights while offering in return only a questionable amount of environmental protection.
Yale and the company it has hired to manage this property, Wagner Forest Management, has been receiving negative attention from Mainers and Yalies alike.
Beyond the issue of secrecy, some who are familiar with the land in Maine say that the way it is being managed is not consistent with the principles of sustainable forestry that are taught at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They say Wagner is focusing too much on maximizing short-term profits and too little on the long-term health of the forest.
Yale could be a much better neighbor and an environmentally responsible landowner in Maine in several ways.
Most immediately, the University should agree to conservation easement terms that would serve the public interest and avoid souring its reputation in Maine.
Also, Yale should commit to sustainable management of its forests by having the land certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the only forest certification program endorsed by major environmental organizations.
The gravity of the situation is not to be underestimated. With an enormous piece of property like this, Yale stands in a position to permanently alter the face of conservation easements. Yale’s ownership of this land presents a tremendous opportunity for the University to be a leader in the practice of sustainable forestry.
Yale’s forestry practices in Maine could serve as a model for other forest managers, and the University could be proud of its ownership of this land. The University should seize this opportunity and manage its Maine forests in a manner that would be worthy of its name.
Yale has much to gain and little to lose in the promotion of sustainable forestry.
In the past it seems that Yale has been afraid to open what its sees as the Pandora’s box of ethical investment issues by inserting itself into the management of its endowment affairs.
Given the difficulty of deciding the appropriate criteria for responsible investing, Yale’s reluctance to regulate its investments is understandable. Yet this particular situation poses a threat to the reputation of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and to the broader sense of Yale’s academic mission to produce intelligent world leaders.
The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is committed to promoting the sustainability of the world’s natural resources by providing new leadership and new knowledge. As students at Yale, we stand not only for what Yale teaches us, but for what we teach as world leaders.
It would make sense to allow one of the leading forestry schools in the world have a voice in the management practices of its own university’s forest landholdings. It would make sense for Yale to rise to the occasion and to act in accordance with that for which it stands.
It would make sense for Yale to stop hiding behind the argument that the University has no control over its investments.
Misti Munster is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Christopher Hudak is a sophomore in Calhoun College.