In easels in the theater of the town hall in West Rutland, Vermont, sat 13 photographs of mountains, and Justin Lindholm was eager to show them to me. As if browsing a museum with an expert guide, I proceeded slowly around the cavernous room one night in October as Lindholm, a native Vermonter, identified each ridge and told me what made it special. People in this state, he explained, take their mountains seriously.
Lindholm, a 56-year-old retired owner of a sporting goods store, had gathered with a hundred other local residents to discuss what they saw as the gravest threat in recent memory to their beloved mountains: a proposal by a developer to install some 30 wind turbines on nearby forestland, rough terrain that locals here seem to cherish above pretty much everything else. “In Vermont, we consider our mountains sort of sacred,” Lindholm explained as we paused over a panorama of a nearby ridge that he had photographed a few days earlier. “In the Poconos or the Catskills, they may not care. But when you mess with our mountains, we take that personally. We get real intimate with them.”
What brought me here, however, was not an interest in the forestland Lindholm treasures — though he would try his hardest to teach me to love it, too — but in the rumored owner of the bulk of the land for which the wind turbine project is planned: Yale University.
The forestland that Yale is believed to own — some 4,000 acres in total — would represent a tiny sliver of the University’s endowment, the $16.3 billion treasure chest that will fund almost half of Yale’s total budget this year. It would be merely one of the many “alternative investments” that have proven remarkably lucrative for the University over the past few decades, helping to line Yale’s coffers with an amount of wealth virtually unparalleled in higher education — wealth that has allowed Yale to purchase a new science campus, refurbish its dormitories and increase financial aid, among other things. Yale would surely profit from the proposed wind project by leasing its land to the developer, which in turn would grow that endowment even larger, allowing the University, as Yale administrators like to say, to do even more good.
But Lindholm and others here do not see any good coming of the proposed wind farm. Rather, they see the prospect of their mountains disturbed, their scenery marred, their community changed, irrevocably, for the worse. To them, Yale is a profiteer, preying on a rural community whose residents cannot fight back. But that’s not to say they won’t try.
The town of Ira, Vermont, is precisely 200 miles by car from 55 Whitney Ave. in New Haven, where Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and his staff preside over Yale’s endowment. The drive there seems longer than that. After a few hours on Interstate 91, you arrive in Rockingham, Vermont, population 5,300 and home of the Vermont Country Store (offering aged cheddar cheese cut from a 38-pound wheel). You keep driving; in Chester, Vermont, population 3,000, you make a right turn at William Austin’s Antiques (“50 kinds of mounts,” a sign outside declares). Now you follow back roads, past roadside stands selling farm-fresh eggs and maple syrup, past signs warning of crossing moose, past so many wood-shingled, post-and-beam houses that you expect to see Bob Vila at any moment.
Along the way, people are few, but shops are plentiful: offering taxidermy services and snowmobile storage, cheddar cheese or any product imaginable made of wrought iron. There are more antique stores than I imagine there could be antiques. In an hour’s worth of driving, there is only one stoplight, which you find down the road from the Okemo ski resort, across from a little breakfast nook called Trapper’s. Eventually, you arrive in Rutland City, which, with a population of 17,000, is Vermont’s second-largest city. Here you see many stoplights, and a kind of commercial thoroughfare that could be anywhere — except with the addition of mountains, their craggy peaks of all shapes and sizes silhouetted in the haze, in every direction you look.
A few miles away from the city center, I parked in the leaf-covered driveway of Jeff Wennberg, who served as mayor of Rutland City for 12 years and most recently served as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. These days, Wennberg spends the bulk of his time working for a Washington-based environmental think-tank, but I am here to speak with him about his after-hours job: serving as the point man for the developer who wants to turn nearby forestland into renewable energy. We sat on the sofa in his cozy living room, where copies of Smithsonian magazine sat on the coffee table and, behind a large wooden dining room table, the Taconic Mountains peeked through the window.
Wennberg, 57, has lived in Rutland his whole life, serving as the city’s youngest school board member and then, at 34, its youngest mayor. He has spent his entire adult life in public service, at various times working for Jim Jeffords when he was in the House of Representatives, managing the town where Okemo is located, and running the local waste management district. Tired of traveling all the time for his think-tank job and interested in consulting on a local level, he got involved in the wind turbine proposal last spring after seeing an article about it in the local newspaper, calling up the developer, and inquiring about the project. He assured me that he did not sign on until he was sure it was a good project for the community. “I’ve been here all my life and have no desire to go anywhere, so I have to be very careful about whom I’m representing,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to represent something I don’t believe in.”
What Wennberg is representing is the project that was selected from five wind turbine plans submitted in response to a request-for-proposal by Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., which oversees 2.7 million acres of timberland holdings in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada on behalf of different investors, Yale believed to be among them. The winning proposal — by a Danish-born Vermont developer and an Italian power conglomerate, Enel Inc., who together have formed a company called Vermont Community Wind — calls for about 30 wind turbines to be built on the 4,000 Wagner-managed acres and several other nearby properties. The project is exactly what is all the rage in the energy sector today: The United States invested $17 billion in wind farms in 2008, building thousands of turbines across the country and nearly doubling the nation’s wind-based generating capacity in the process. Under the banner of promoting sustainable energy, wind farms are now up and running in 36 states, and the wind industry’s lobbying group, the America Wind Energy Association, estimates that the nation’s wind farms can power the equivalent of 7 million homes.
Like scores of others under construction elsewhere, the proposed turbines in Vermont will only add to that figure. All told, when the wind blows, the turbines outside Rutland should produce 80 megawatts of power, enough to keep the lights (and everything else) aglow in some 30,000 Vermont households. Indeed, the allure of wind power as a renewable energy source is hard to argue. But as Wennberg has found in Vermont, and as other developers have found elsewhere, people don’t like to look at wind turbines in their backyards. Perhaps most famously, residents of Cape Cod — including the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his family — have fought for years to prevent the nation’s first off-shore wind farm from being built in the middle of Nantucket Sound.
For all intents and purposes, it is Wennberg’s job to wage a public-relations battle in order to clear the way for the wind turbine project. He provided me with a printout of PowerPoint slides extolling the virtues of wind power, a news clipping documenting political support for wind farms, and a fact sheet about the developer that seems aimed at making sure people in Vermont don’t think that the Italian power conglomerate is somehow run by Mussolini. Just the name of the development company itself — Vermont Community Wind — is a public-relations device. Its logo is even more shameless: A silhouette of a boy flying a kite underneath four wind turbines, with a flock of birds soaring majestically above.
Marketing propaganda in hand, I followed Wennberg to his Honda sedan for the next phase in his attempt to sell me on the project: a whirlwind tour of Rutland County. In about 15 minutes — there is not exactly much traffic in these parts to contend with — we crossed the border into Ira, the locus of the turbine proposal and also the source of the most opposition to it.
The town of Ira is named for Revolutionary War hero Ira Allen, brother of Ethan Allen, an even more heroic Revolutionary War hero. Only 455 people live here, a tenth of them in poverty, in 21 square miles that lie between two ridges, a state highway running north to south between them. Wennberg and I drove along that road, and there was not much to see. Ira has no stores, save a roadside firewood stand and a large log cabin with the word “ANTIQUES” written in white paint above the door. What it does have are a small red-brick town office (about to be replaced by a small vinyl-clad town office, just completed next door), a small white-clapboard Baptist church, and a small cemetery.
As we drove, Wennberg motioned toward the ridges on both sides of us — Susie’s Peak to the east, Herrick Mountain to the west — and toward where the turbines will be installed, where a power line will connect them to Vermont’s electrical grid, and where a temporary wind-testing tower has already been set up to make sure that the wind actually comes. “This is an extraordinary site,” Wennberg said. It is, he said, one of the best for a wind farm in all of New England, “and that’s something that needs to be understood.”
For now, the view is also extraordinary. What is special about this town, residents say, is how untouched it is despite being mere minutes from what, by Vermont standards, is a veritable metropolis. Wennberg acknowledged that the 400-foot-tall wind turbines will be distinctly visible on two sides when driving up or down the state highway in Ira; he told me that additional turbines planned for other ridges were scrapped in order to lessen the aesthetic impact on the town.
Wennberg is quick to point out another type of impact the wind turbines will have on the town: an economic impact. Indeed, they will undoubtedly inject money into Ira and other local towns on a scale that few other developments could provide. The municipal budget in Ira this year totals about $170,000; with the proposed turbines in place, the town would collect between $380,000 and $630,000 annually in payments for the next 25 years, paying for the entire town budget with room left over for residents to receive an annual dividend check, of sorts.
“You’ve got the highest unemployment rate in all of the state of Vermont here. Our economy is suffering more than any other economy in the state of Vermont. The money from this is going to get back into the community,” Wennberg said. “The benefits are huge.”
Why would a university own a forest 200 miles from its campus? The answer is simple: to make money. In fact, owning forests is one way that David Swensen and his staff have made almost unfathomable sums of money for Yale over the past two decades. For most of its modern history, Yale’s investment managers put the majority of the University’s riches in domestic stocks and bonds, which are safe but decidedly non-ambitious. But when he took over the endowment in 1985, Swensen began to change that, diversifying the endowment by investing it in venture capital, hedge funds and what he calls “real assets,” including real estate, oil, gas, and timberland.
These “real assets” made up nearly a third of Yale’s endowment last year, making it the largest single chunk of Yale’s 11-figure fund. Other universities have followed suit in pouring money into so-called alternative investments; schools with endowments exceeding $1 billion invested half their funds in them last year. Swensen has been on his heels lately — “real assets” performed poorly in the economic downturn, forcing him to defend his model — but people in the industry still generally credit him as having transformed the way large institutions invest their endowments.
Timberland, in particular, “offers strong return potential, steady cash flow, inflation protection and portfolio diversification,” as Swensen wrote in last year’s updated edition of his 2000 book, Pioneering Portfolio Management. He notes that investment returns stem primarily from the value of timber harvested and changes in the value of residual timber and land; according to one index, timberland produced an 8.1 percent annual return, after inflation, from 1960 to 2005. But that’s not all: Swensen adds that leasing the forestland for “other activities” — including mining and “alternative energy uses” — can also be profitable.
Still, the details of Yale’s experience leasing its forests for “other activities” are entirely unknown. The University’s annual report about its investments discusses the performance of the endowment’s alternative investments in broad terms, but rarely does a specific holding come into public view. The University does not speak publicly about its specific investments — Swensen did not respond to requests for comment for this article — and out of competitive reasons, it even goes so far as to hide its land holdings under a variety of shell companies that are difficult to trace. And beyond that, it is not as if Swensen and his deputies micromanage Yale’s land holdings and other alternative investments on a day-to-day basis; in the most simplistic terms, they set how much of Yale’s endowment should be invested in what type of asset, and then hire outside managers to actually oversee how that money is invested.
For that reason, it is impossible to state the exact nature of Yale’s relationship to the forestland in Ira. According to public records, the bulk of the land for which the wind turbine project is planned — most notably, Herrick Mountain — is owned by a company called Yankee Forest LLC and managed by Wagner Forest Management. About a decade ago, the University disclosed in a federal tax filing that it owned a 99 percent stake in Yankee Forest LLC. What remains unknown is whether Yale still holds such a stake, because the state of New Hampshire — where Yankee Forest is legally registered — does not require a limited liability company’s owners to reveal themselves publicly, and Wagner officials say they are contractually prohibited from identifying their clients.
A Yale spokesman, Tom Conroy, would not confirm or deny that the University has a stake in the Ira forestland, offering only a one-sentence statement: “Yale does not disclose its investments.” Wennberg, for his part, would only say that Wagner has the full power of ownership to the property and that it is anyone’s guess as to the underlying owner of the land. “We don’t know, and I don’t want to get sucked into that whole debate, because it’s irrelevant to us,” he told me. “We have the lease, and we have the relationship with Wagner.”
In any event, even if Yale is the underlying owner of the land, it seems unlikely that the idea for the wind-farm project originated within the University. Wennberg said that Wagner requested proposals for wind-turbine developments only after his boss, along with several other developers interested in wind projects, approached the company to say that Yankee Forest’s land would be perfect for a renewable energy project.
A spokesman for Wagner, Michael Novello, would not discuss where the idea for the wind-turbine development came from, but he did offer an explanation of the logic behind it. “Especially in an economy like this, it’s important for diversification,” he told me. “If you have an additional revenue stream [beyond timber harvesting], that helps smooth out things during the bad times.”
So the mystery continues. But this much is clear: Whatever is actually the case, the good people of Ira, Vermont, think that Yale owns a big chunk of their town. I am not sure if that is the case — but it does seem likely that Yale has something to do with the land in question, even if it did not come up with the idea for the wind project. After all: If the University hadn’t a thing to do with this, why would the developer spend two hours with me, a Yale student, trying his hardest to sell me on the merits of the project?
Justin Lindholm wanted to sell me on something different. He wanted to sell me on what it means to be from Vermont. Seeing the panoramic photographs on the easels in the West Rutland Town Hall, he told me, was not enough. Not even close. There is only one way to get a true sense of what was at stake, he said: “You’ve got to hike.”
So hike I did. On an overcast afternoon, I met Lindholm in a supermarket parking lot by the town hall and piled my gear into his car, a mud-stained and very much mountain-friendly Jeep Wrangler. We drove to the base of another peak in Ira, Bird Mountain, which overlooks the land to which Yale is supposedly tied; another local resident who is fighting the project, Justin Turco, followed in his equally mud-stained GMC Sierra pickup truck.
Lindholm, wearing a heavy flannel overcoat, comes across as a modern-day incarnation of one of the Green Mountain Boys, the ragged group of colonists led by Ethan and Ira Allen who fought their entire adult lives for independence: first from the nearby colony of New York, and then from the British Empire. Lindholm’s parents moved their family to West Virginia when he was nine, and Lindholm immediately missed his boyhood mountains. His time at the University of Michigan was no better. “I was going ape,” he told me as we started our hike. “I would take five-mile walks and still you couldn’t find woods. They had this thing they called the arboretum, where they planted everything. That was the best they could do.” So after two years in Ann Arbor, Lindholm dropped out and returned to Vermont, where he settled down and took over a sporting goods store that his father had opened. Over the years, he bought forestland in different parts of the state, mostly so he would have a quiet place to go hiking and hunting and generally to enjoy the outdoors. One of those places was Ira, where Lindholm bought a large parcel of land on top of Bird Mountain, the destination of our hike.
Turco’s story is different. An airline pilot, he flew A320 jetliners for United Airlines until losing his job in a round of layoffs in September. Like Lindholm, he wore a flannel overcoat, one that he bought at his hiking partner’s old store. Unlike Lindholm, he does not seem cut from the Green Mountain Boy mold; he offers a firm handshake and has an airline pilot’s requisite trust-me-with-your-life gravitas. But Turco, 42, who lives with his wife and two daughters about a mile and a half from where the nearest turbine is slated to be built, is no less upset about the planned development. “We don’t have much in Ira, but what we do have is Herrick Mountain,” he said. “It’s who we are in this town. It makes up everything we stand for.”
Lindholm, for one, has some experience with wind farms: he also owns land in Lempster, N.H., a town of 971 people where a dozen turbines began operating last year. Their developer asked Lindholm and his next-door neighbor if they would lease their land as part of the project. “And we both told them to screw themselves,” he told me proudly.
Our hike up the mountain was a veritable nature walk. We talked about trees: maple trees, red oak trees, birch trees, and white oak trees, which I was informed are rare at this latitude and thus make it cause for excitement when we spot one. We talked about birds of prey; Lindholm taught me how to identify a peregrine falcon (“they look like a dive bomber,” with swept-back wings), but we did not see any. We talked about logging and hunting and the positives and negatives of ATV trails. We talked about the creatures of the Vermont forest: bobcats, porcupines, hawks, raptors, deer, caribou, crows, turkey vultures, and turkeys themselves.
All of this talk seemed to move Turco, who eagerly peppered Lindholm with questions about the woods as if he were a young forestry student meeting Henry David Thoreau. “There is so much to lose here,” Turco reflected at one point, speaking to no one in particular.
Finally, after more than a few slippery steps on the dewy leaf-covered trails, we reached the peak of Bird Mountain, a grassy swatch no more than a few dozen yards square. We were standing 2,216 feet above sea level, and the view, objectively, was astounding: To the east were the Green Mountains, to the southwest the Catskills, to the west the Adirondacks and the faintest outline of Lake Champlain.
The two men unfurled a map of the area, and Lindholm pointed across the horizon. “This is going to be all turbines,” Lindholm said. He spoke with a tone of resignation, like a man committed to a cause he knows he is not nearly powerful enough to defend. Our hike felt like part of the grieving process: bargaining (“We’ve got to keep the tourists coming — they don’t have to come here”) begot depression (“You ought to be here when the sun goes down”), and that in turn begot acceptance (“We should hang sap buckets on ’em in the spring just to get the spirit of Vermont back”).
Above all else, Lindholm just seemed sad. To him, the peak of Bird Mountain has been a place to reflect—upon the death of a family member or friend, upon a stumbling block in life. Lindholm would go there and sit, sometimes for hours. Unless there is logging underway—as there was when I visited—the world is utterly silent, like peering at a snapshot of a dream. “There is a natural order of things. We’re all part of nature,” Lindholm told me as we looked over the edge. “Going up here, you see the purpose. You feel more whole than when you came up here.” I asked him what he would do if the turbines were built. He shrugged. “I guess I’ll have to find another spot,” he said.
Last summer, Lindholm sold his land to the state of Vermont, striking a deal that allows him to tend to it for the rest of his life but guarantees that it will be preserved after his death. The turbine project was not a factor in the sale. “They never asked me if I wanted my own turbine,” he said with a chuckle. “I missed a golden opportunity — to tell them to go fly a kite.”
In trying to assess to what extent a wind farm would destroy the town of Ira (as residents told me) or secure America’s energy independence (as Wennberg promised), I figured a good starting point was to see a wind turbine in person. My conception of a windmill was the sort of wood-and-nails contraption you might find jury-rigged on a farm or ranch somewhere. It turns out I was rather ill-informed.
The town of Searsburg, Vermont, makes Ira look like a burgeoning metropolis. Four-and-a-half miles square, the town, near the Massachusetts border, has a population of 96 people. It also has 10 wind turbines, which make up the first and only industrial wind farm operating in Vermont. And more are forthcoming: Seventeen new turbines are planned for a future expansion of the facility.
While Wennberg pointed out one of the proposed sites for the turbines from his dining-room window 10 miles away from Ira, the turbines in Searsburg are not visible from the main state road that cuts through the town. To get to turbine-land, rather, you must turn down a side road that warns of rough pavement and crossing moose. The turbines remain out of sight until a bend in the road.
First you notice a shanty on the side of the road, with a heaping pile of firewood, stumps, and trash and a rusted Chevy Blazer standing sentry beside it. In the distance, however, the turbines quickly come into sight, poking out beyond the treetops and spinning ever so gently in the morning breeze. Bright white pillars jutting out from the ridge, they look like something out of a science-fiction movie.
It was an unseasonably cold morning when I arrived at the front entrance to the 12-year-old Searsburg Wind Power Facility, which is run by Green Mountain Power, one of Vermont’s largest power companies. The turbines here are 200-foot-tall dinosaurs, capable of producing only one-half megawatt per turbine and only half the size of the smallest turbines planned for Ira. (“We won’t even take people down there because it would be misleading,” Wennberg told me.) But they are turbines nonetheless, and visiting a tiny turbine is better than visiting none at all, I thought.
After a windy drive up a gravel road in a Green Mountain Power pickup truck, I stood atop the ridge among the turbines as Aaron Taylor, who has run the facility here for the last six years, unlocked the hatch into one of them. We climbed inside the base, a circular steel shaft that narrows in diameter from 12 feet to seven feet at the top of the turbine, and Taylor proceeded to show me how the turbines run. For the most part, they are controlled remotely on a computer; only when something bad happens does the 35-year-old Taylor have to physically work the control panel as he did for me.
I was particularly interested to meet Taylor because of all the horror stories that people in Ira told me about living around wind turbines. For instance, the organizers of the town meeting in West Rutland recruited an anti-wind-turbine activist from Canada to come speak on “wind turbine syndrome,” a potentially fatal “disease” with which people who live near wind turbines are apparently stricken — and for which there is absolutely no legitimate scientific evidence, as far as I could tell. I asked Taylor about the criticism. “That’s really the sad part,” he replied. “It’s mostly myths, and it’s the bad myths that get exploited.” Modern turbines don’t dice up birds, he said; they don’t spin fast enough. They aren’t unbearably loud, unless something goes wrong, like when the rotor blades get coated with ice. Besides, he said, if it’s windy enough to make the turbines spin, the sound of the wind will drown out any sound from the turbines themselves — which certainly seemed to be the case when I was in Searsburg. And what about wind turbine syndrome and its supposed symptoms of nausea, depression, vertigo, panic attacks, and eventual death? Taylor rolled his eyes when I asked him. “I’m here every day and I’m fine,” he said.
By all accounts, the turbines in Searsburg are not a source of many problems. Dorothy Schnure, who handles public relations for Green Mountain Power, told me there is little criticism to fend off in the Searsburg area. “We’ve had really good local support of the project,” she said. “Support before we built it was pretty strong, and after we built it was stronger.”
Searsburg’s town clerk, a 60-year-old lifelong resident named Josie Kilbride, told me the same thing. A few people who own vacation homes in Searsburg complain about having to look at the turbines, but people who live in the town year-round do not seem to mind. “It’s like driving down the road and seeing the telephone polls,” she said. “You don’t notice them anymore.”
This is not the first time that people have been mad at Yale for the way it invests money. Far from it. Over the years, controversies have spanned a wide range of topics, including investments in the tobacco industry and companies based in Sudan and apartheid-era South Africa, as well as matters involving defense contracting, political lobbying, environmental safety, sustainability and labor standards. In fact, the University is credited as being the first major institution to take on the issue of ethics in institutional investing. The 1972 book “The Ethical Investor: Universities and Corporate Responsibility” by Yale Law School professor John Simon and two graduate students set the standard for how institutions deal with social responsibility as a factor in making investment decisions.
Concerns about Yale’s investments are heard by what is known as the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR), which is composed of two students, two alumni, two faculty members and two staff members. The ACIR is charged with carrying out the University’s policies on ethical investing, as approved by the committee of the University’s highest governing body, the Yale Corporation, that sets them.
The University’s investment practices have been debated with particular intensity in the last year as a result of the emergence of a student organization aimed at reforming them, called the Responsible Endowment Project. The group seeks to restructure the ACIR, which it argues is not suited to function with a modern endowment composed in large part of alternative assets. Its members cite the wind-farm controversy as one example. “Whatever your stance on this particular issue, it highlights the need for a more transparent endowment,” Sarah Eidelson ’12, one of the leaders of the group, told me.
After returning from Vermont, I called the ACIR’s chairman, Jonathan Macey, a corporate law professor at Yale Law School, to inquire about whether his committee had examined the wind project. Macey told me he had received several e-mails and phone messages from Vermont residents raising concerns about the project. One of them, a retired graphic designer named Peter Cosgrove, even traveled to New Haven in January to lobby Macey’s committee in person.
It seems likely that public pressure on the University will build in the coming months, from the Responsible Endowment Project as well as people in Rutland County. In the fall, Cosgrove wrote every faculty member of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies to raise awareness about the wind turbine proposal; only one responded, he said. Several people told me they have written to Swensen or Yale’s president, Richard Levin. Other residents to whom I spoke said they had not reached out to the University, but that their opinion of Yale had changed for the worse as a result of the rumors of its tie to the wind project. One of them was Bruce Anderson, a 61-year-old who raises Belted Galloways, a rare breed of cattle that is native to Scotland, on a farm near Ira. Anderson has raised cattle in the Rutland area for 40 years, and he is not happy about the possibility of staring at wind turbines for the rest of his life. “It’s just not right,” he told me as we chatted before the town meeting. “I feel that if Yale truly understands what is proposed here, they would take an interest. I’d hate to believe such a renowned university would just turn its head and take the dollar.”
Wennberg told me he thought local residents would try to ramp up the pressure on Yale as the project advances and they begin to run out of ways to fight it. “The dedicated opponents are looking for any avenue,” he said. “Their interest is not whether Yale is transparent or not; they don’t care. Their interest is, if there’s someone with authority that is in this chain somewhere that they can bring pressure on to make this project go away, then that’s an avenue they’re going to want to take up.”
For their part, Yale officials won’t speak publicly about the Vermonters’ complaints, but if they did, their response would probably be to explain that like other large institutional investors, the University entrusts experts (like the people at Wagner) to make the day-to-day decisions regarding the land it owns for investment purposes. It would make no sense, they would probably argue, for Swensen — amid managing the billions of dollars the University relies on to preserve its ability to carry out its mission and to protect its future — to be micro-managing which development proposal is picked for a 4,000-acre forest in Vermont. In fact, in the grand scheme of Yale’s investments, it is hard to imagine that the lease payments Yale would stand to receive from Vermont Community Wind would amount to anything more than a rounding error.
At this point, there is little indication as to whether the ACIR might intervene regarding the wind project. Macey told me he was particularly curious to find out what public recourse the residents who had contacted him could take in Vermont. What regulatory hurdles does the wind farm need to clear? How are elected officials handling the situation? What are the zoning rules that apply? “It’s a complicated issue,” he said, and not one the committee is used to dealing with. Divestment from Sudan was familiar ground. Divestment from the Taconic Mountains, not so much. “This is clearly not an issue of apartheid or genocide in Darfur,” he said. “With renewable energy, there’s this other side: It’s a ‘you want omelets, you’ve got to break eggs’ kind of thing. It’s a tough issue.”
It was also a tough issue the last time Yale’s forest holdings came into question. In 2001, the University came under fire after it was outed as the owner of land in Maine that state officials there hoped to include as part of a conservation area. Wagner, which also managed that land for the University, was accused of driving a hard bargain with conservation officials and prioritizing the timber-harvesting potential of the land over the environmental benefit of preserving it. It was that episode that shone the public glare onto Yale’s connection with Wagner and Yankee Forest, and it is the Google results from news articles about it that seem to be the basis for why most people in Vermont believe the University is behind the wind turbine project.
Before we hung up, I asked Macey the burning question: Did he know if the University actually owns the property in question? “The only thing I know about this is from the people up in Vermont, and I’m not really even sure, frankly, what the nature of Yale’s interest in it is,” he said. Same here, I told him, adding that my trip to the Rutland area did not shed much further light on who exactly owned the land. Macey quickly interrupted me. “Oh my God, you went up there?” he asked. “What was it like?”
I told him: Dirt roads. Farmers with tractors. Mountains, mountains and more mountains. He asked me about how far a drive it is, what the town of Ira is like, what residents seemed to think of the proposal. He asked me whether I had ever seen a turbine, how loud they sound, whether they were anything like the squatty weathered windmill the Dutch used to build. “I don’t know why they can’t make them look like those,” he said. “Everybody likes those.”
Ultimately, Macey put it best: This is a complicated issue. That was clear from the moment I arrived in Vermont. Annette Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, summed up the quagmire: “Until seven months ago, I thought I was for wind power,” she told me. David Potter, who represents the area in the Vermont House of Representatives, is similarly conflicted. He told a Yale Daily News reporter this past fall that he supports renewable energy in principle — just not when it means wind turbines in his backyard. “And I’m proud of that fact,” he added, “because my backyard is important to me, although I suppose somewhere is everybody’s backyard.”
In a way, the same applies to Yale’s land holdings: What is an item on a balance sheet at 55 Whitney Ave. is someone else’s backyard. And in this case, it is the backyard of a community that may be too small to protect it. That was the feeling I got in Ira — a feeling of resignation. There are many hurdles Vermont Community Wind must still jump before receiving the state permits to build the turbines, but many of them appear to be technicalities rather than substantive obstacles. Someone at the town hall meeting asked Smith for her assessment of the proposal’s future: “As far as we can tell, it’s on the fast track,” she replied.
Regardless, in the months to come, the good people of Ira will keep writing letters to the editor of the Rutland Herald. They will keep showing up at community meetings. They will keep fighting. Turco, unemployed, said he is obsessing over the proposal, and I got the sense he was most definitely not alone. “I’ve just been glued to my computer researching this,” he said. “I keep thinking, ‘There’s got to be a silver bullet.’” Some people think Yale could be that silver bullet — if, of course, it turns out that the University does really own the 4,000 acres for which the turbines are planned, and that it could pull the plug (or, probably more accurately, force Wagner to pull the plug) on the development. But we don’t know if that’s the case, and we may never know.
The night before I left Vermont, I drove through Ira at dusk, parking my car at the town office and walking alongside the state highway, the mountains at my side. At a dairy farm down the road, a cow peeked its head out from under one of the dairy’s large doors, raised two feet off the ground for ventilation. A small freckled girl, no older than 8 or 9, walked outside, pails of milk swinging in both of her hands. The sun soon receded beyond the mountains, and I eventually returned to my car, resting in the driver’s seat in the darkest of darkness. It was quiet, and it was beautiful.
Whether it stays that way remains to be seen, just as whether Vermont needs more wind turbines, or whether the Yale endowment needs to be more proactive in ensuring socially responsible investment practices, are both debates that cannot be easily settled. But among those messy issues, one thing seemed clear: Looking into the distance from atop Bird Mountain, the Yale endowment feels very, very small.