Equinox Hotel Restructures Preservation Trust

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(Host) The Equinox Resort in Manchester and the Vermont Institute for Natural Science are working on an expanded partnership. Under the proposal, VINS would provide many of the services now offered by the Equinox Preservation Trust. But some conservationists worry that the educational and research programs of the Preservation Trust could be jeopardized by the restructuring and the loss of its director.

VPR’s John Van Hoesen reports.

(Julie Sperling) “We do things like cut trails, build bridges and we had a big project with the Green Mountain Club where we put in about 20 stone stairs in a part of the trail .” (Sound of walking sounds on trail, birds.)

(Van Hoesen) As we hike along “Flatlander’s Trail,” Julie Sperling describes some of the work that she coordinated in the Mount Equinox preserve. Sperling was the director of the Equinox Preservation Trust for eight years.

The program is considered unique because it joins a for-profit business with a non-profit conservation trust. In 1993, the Equinox resort protected about 950 dramatic acres on the eastern flank of Mount Equinox, behind the hotel.

(Sound of running water at Equinox Pond.) Not far up the mountain, the forest opens up onto the clear and serene Equinox Pond.

(Sperling) “Equinox Pond is really the crown jewel of the preserve . Hotel guests have flocked to this pond for years. Mount Equinox has what may be the largest and most intact example of a rich northern hardwood forest in all of New England.”

(Van Hoesen) The Equinox Preservation Trust was set up to be the steward of this land and to coordinate conservation efforts. Guests at the Equinox hotel pay a $5 voluntary contribution on their bill. The money is used for the Equinox Preservation Trust. In one recent year, it brought in $100,000.

But last month, for Julie Sperling, everything came to a sudden halt:

(Sperling) “I was called into the office, told the Trust will be restructured, the director’s position will be eliminated. VINS will play a larger role on the mountain. The end. That’s it.”

(Van Hoesen) Her departure raised a chorus of protests in the conservation community and concern for the future of the Equinox Preservation Trust.

(Sperling) (Sound of shuffling papers.) “These are letters of support that have come in since March to the Equinox Hotel for the conservation partnership – from UVM to Bennington College; from local residents who live here.”

(Van Hoesen) Meanwhile, officials at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Woodstock say they were approached by the hotel. Sherman Kent is executive director of VINS:

(Kent) “The Equinox Hotel came to VINS and asked if we’d be interested in expanding our services with them and with EPT . Through negotiations over the last month or two the job has been developed to include many of the jobs that were done by EPT.”

(Van Hoesen) According to Kent, the VINS’ mission and the mission of the Equinox trust are almost identical.

(Kent) “It certainly would be my intent to look at all the activities and do our very best to carry on a great number of them.”

(Van Hoesen) But that’s where other conservation groups and Julie Sperling raise a question. They wonder if VINS can broker all the research and educational partnerships that the trust developed.

Rick Paradis is on the VINS Board and is also the director of the Natural Areas Center at the University of Vermont. He says VINS would be a good steward of the land. But he questions the future of the partnerships, like the ones with UVM, Bennington College and Burr and Burton Academy, which were put in place and nurtured by the trust.

(Paradis) “I’m not sure VINS is either poised or interested in picking up those things. Putting on my university hat, my concern is that the relationship the current EPT structure and VINS is involved in may leave some of these activities behind.”

(Van Hoesen) UVM’s summer land conservation program lists courses at the Equinox Hotel. Paradis says he’s concerned because he’s sent letters to the hotel about the UVM program and hasn’t gotten a response.

(Sound of machinery.) And at the Equinox Resort and Spa, where they were taking down the dome over the tennis courts this week, there’s no official position. Gary Thulander, the general manager, wouldn’t go on tape for this story, but he says there will be an announcement of a new partner soon.

As for Julie Sperling, she supports VINS, but points out that its base is in Woodstock. She says its time for local people to be added to the Trust’s Board of Directors, now made up of only hotel staff:

(Sperling) “In order for it to be more than lip service, the hotel needs to appoint a new director, establish a board of directors so that a local group of people have ownership and a say.” (Sound of bird singing, cawing.)

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen on Mount Equinox.

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