People value our work and know that ultimately we’re here to preserve land.”
Melissa Arnold woke up in her sleeping bag in Alaska and knew she needed to study law. She and fellow teachers from the Yosemite Institute, a nature education organization that partners with the National Park Service, had traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to study that long-threatened landscape. She had a degree in environmental conservation and had done backcountry work for several years, but wanted new tools for greater influence. "I said to myself, 'I need to know more about environmental law and policy-the secret language they use in conservation bills. I want to have a seat at that table.'"
In Vermont Law School's MSEL program, Arnold built a foundation in land use policy and property law and defined a longstanding interest in land conservation. As a land protection specialist with the Boulder-area Tax Credit Connection, Arnold now helps conserve Colorado. "A conservation easement permanently restricts the property's uses," she explains. "In Colorado, if the property transaction qualifies, the owners are eligible for state tax credits they can use for 20 years. If they need the cash, for example, they can sell them to, say, a business or individual who has a high tax liability. We broker that process."
Part of the process involves hard, detailed review work, says Arnold. "We review the entire transaction—the deeds, appraisals, title work—to make sure there's nothing that would cause an audit or require the repayment of the tax credits. Sometimes it takes months if there are points that need to be remedied. Only then do we stamp our approval."
Arnold honed these crucial due-diligence skills while working a temporary job at the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department. Such county jobs are coveted, she says, but she had invaluable VLS connections in professors Karin Sheldon and Jessica Jay '97, who are highly regarded in Colorado and in environmental and land use law. A permanent position as a stewardship specialist followed, where she took on easement transactions and educated landowners on the benefits of donating their lands.
When Arnold and her husband had a daughter in 2008, a shorter workweek became a priority. Fortunately, she had met Ariel Steele, owner of Tax Credit Connection, who hired and continues to encourage her. "I'm working three days a week," Arnold says, "and I'm one of the few part-time moms I know who's learning and being promoted in her job." That job engages Arnold in enjoyably "dorky" detail work: "My master's gave me the confidence to look at a legal document and know what I'm looking for. It's like detective work, and I love it." Occasionally, she also gets to visit the land she's helped preserve and meet the people whose heritage it represents. "That's part of Ariel's strong ethic of personal relations," Arnold says. "People value our work and know that ultimately we're here to preserve land."
What was key to getting the most from her year at VLS? "I wasn't limiting myself, but I had this sense of where I wanted to head, and that allowed me to pick courses that started to weave together," Arnold recalls. "I did an independent study with Professor Janet Milne in property law that was just what I needed. By the end of my 12 months, it had all come together." The program is perfect, she says, "for somebody who doesn't want to litigate and provide counsel but who wants to understand how things work in law, and to influence-to have a voice at the table."