Although Forrest Berkley ’75 may have had a change of heart some years ago — he went to Harvard Law and Business schools after his Yale days — he seems to be coming around now. After retiring from an asset management firm that grew from handling $1 billion to $120 billion, Berkley is back on the bluer side of things.
While enjoying financial success over the last 20 years, Berkley said he gave practically none of his earnings back to Yale. But at the end of 2005, Berkley chose to donate $1 million to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to establish funding for summer internships for students and an annual conference on land conservation and preservation.
While he was an investor, Berkley’s firm was given the responsibility of managing part of Yale’s endowment by David Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer. Though Swensen often encouraged Berkley to give back to his alma mater, Berkley said he and his wife had preferred giving to other charities. But upon his retirement last year, Berkley said, he decided to give back to Yale for many reasons, including the feeling that he owed something to the University.
“I wanted something I could throw myself into and enable me to have another career,” he said. “It didn’t have to be a paying career. I wanted to do something different. … I have been successful. I have gotten to the point where you say, ‘What’s the point of earning the next million dollars?'”
Initially, Berkley said, he planned to give Yale’s Investments Office $1 million in unrestricted funds, meaning that Yale could use it as it saw fit.
“Then driving to work, I suddenly had this idea,” Berkley said. “Yale might not need the money, but maybe Yale could be very useful doing what Yale does best — research and development, developing some land conservation tools.”
Berkley said his idea to give to the Environment School came from his “land conservation gene.” His parents instilled in him a love for the outdoors by taking him to national parks throughout his childhood, he said. Since then, Berkley said, he has hiked through the Northeast and in locales as far away as Patagonia and Nepal.
After Berkley decided to donate the money to the Environment School, he called Jay Espy SOM ’85 FES ’85, the president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a group focused on conserving Maine’s coastal lands. About a week later, Berkley said, he, Espy and FES Dean Gus Speth arranged a conference call to begin setting the terms of the donation.
Seventy percent of the donation will be allocated to funding summer internships in land conservation for Environment School students, said Brad Gentry, a senior lecturer and research scholar at FES and the manager of the new internship program. Internship funding is already being allocated to students for this summer.
Berkley said he felt this aspect of the donation would encourage students to work in land conservation, a field not known for its lucrative jobs.
“The problem is that organizations [students] go to work for don’t have any money to pay them,” Berkley said. “We need to take very bright people to give them an opportunity to have exposure to land conservation organizations.”
On the other end, Espy said, the organizations greatly appreciate the interns they will receive from Yale.
“The interns will provide organizations like ours the man power, brain power and time to pursue the activities we aren’t able to,” Espy said.
The remaining 30 percent of the donation will fund the first three years of an annual conference to bring leaders in the field of land conservation together to talk about its future. These conferences will provide guidance to land conservation groups that might otherwise spend their time focused on individual purchases, Gentry said.
“A lot of land conservation organizations are so busy putting out fires, like trying to buy land where the developers are threatening, they don’t have time to step back and look at how an area will look at three, five, 10 years down the road,” Gentry said.
The first meeting will be held jointly with the Land Trust Alliance in June. Berkley said he and his wife, Marci Tyre, will probably donate more after the first three years of the conference to ensure it will continue each year if they approve of the conference’s progress, which will provide a forum to discuss new conservation strategies.
“Far more land is being consumed each year than the amount which is being preserved, and it is getting out of control,” Berkley said. “We need new tools and new ways of thinking about conservation.”
Gentry said the theoretical concepts presented in classrooms at FES can be transformed into practical solutions at the conference.
In addition, the conference will involve experts from fields outside of land conservation. For example, Espy said, when considering financing land purchases, government regulators and Wall Street financiers will be invited to offer their opinions and expertise.
This interdisciplinary approach will also benefit the school’s students, Speth said.
“There is increasing demand for well-trained, sophisticated land conservation professionals whose knowledge draws on a range of academic and professional disciplines,” Speth said. He also added that effective land conservation requires broad understanding of natural resources, law and finance.
As for Berkley, he said he does not expect an overnight revolution in land conservation.
“If this million dollars provides for one or two ideas that make a small difference to the amount or character of land that is preserved, then this was a great investment,” Berkley said.
All involved in the program said they hope it can provide direction for future land conservation.
“What’s the right answer? I have no idea,” Berkley said. “But this is the kind of thing that a leading school like Yale, with very smart graduates that will go into important positions, can figure out.”
This semester, Berkley audited Gentry’s class, “Strategies for Land Conservation,” and he said plans to stay involved in land conservation. He is a board member for both the Maine Coast Heritage Trusts and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
In the end, he said he also satisfied his passion for land preservation by enabling Yale to research and innovate in the land conservation field.
“This gift will do something for good, for country and for Yale,” Berkley said. “This is not a story about the environment. This is a story about philanthropy.”