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Tom Nelson

A photo of Tom Nelson
When I first came to VLS, I saw people as the problem. And suddenly I saw them as the solution. My career continues to bear that out.”

LLM 2003

Director of Farm Programs, The Leelanau Conservancy
Leland, Michigan

It took two law degrees to bring Tom Nelson back to farming. This time, he's not a kid helping out with chores on his family's pheasant farm, but an advocate for protecting northern Michigan's farming heritage, its coastlines, and habitat.

Tom is the director of farm programs for the Leelanau Conservancy, one of the country's premier land trusts. The Conservancy was founded in response to increasing pressure to build second and third homes on the prime agricultural land, wetlands, and scenic sites of Michigan's Leelanau peninsula. Nelson develops partnerships with farmers, real estate developers, local communities, state and federal agriculture agencies, "anyone who'll listen," he says, to conserve the rich farming land he considers so essential to future food security. "If you think relying on foreign oil is scary—imagine relying on foreign food one day," he says. "We're cutting ourselves off at the knees by building on farm land."

The environment has always been Tom's passion, but when he studied law at Cleveland Marshall College of Law in the mid-80s, a career in environmental law wasn't on his radar—environmental law courses weren't even available. Instead, he established a career doing legislative advocacy and policy work on behalf of nonprofits fighting domestic violence and child abuse. Although he found his work highly rewarding, the 2001 death of his father prompted a reevaluation. "I started asking myself questions about my life and career," Nelson recalls. "I did a lot of research and reading, volunteered on land use issues, and realized to make the changes I wanted, I needed to ground myself in environmental law and policy. Vermont Law School jumped out immediately when I started looking at schools."

Not that he didn't have reservations. "My law school experience in the 80s wasn't that pleasant," Nelson remembers. "Before coming to VLS I asked myself, ‘do I really want to go through this again?' But I can say being at VLS was one of the highlights of my life, not just my academic career." He enthusiastically explains why. "I felt at home right away. My eight LLM colleagues and I forged real friendships, and we're all still in touch. We're all over the place now, doing cool things." He gives special credit to the faculty. "The faculty was just superb. They cared passionately about the issues, about developing good lawyers for the environment, and their passion was infectious." From his experience in the Environmental Law Center to his interactions with his advisor, Professor Janet Milne (Director of VLS's Environmental Tax Policy Institute), he always felt part of a community willing to share knowledge and experience.

Nelson originally came to VLS for academic grounding in solving environmental problems, but he left with much more. "I had an epiphany—my whole way of thinking changed," he remembers. "When I first came to VLS, I saw people as the problem. And suddenly I saw them as the solution. My career continues to bear that out."

In his conservancy work, Nelson works with a complex array of constituents, economies, and needs: Farmers are aging, but younger farmers can't afford to buy land; Detroit's industrial decline means less state money for land preservation; Awareness of food issues is growing, but creative financing for farmland preservation doesn't yet meet the need. Advocating at local and state levels for changes in policy and financing has become an essential part of his job.

Nelson is also a booster for Michigan's farming potential, second only to California's for agricultural diversity, he says proudly. "We live in a globally unique shoreline microclimate, and there are 1.5 million cherry trees in my county alone. It's a significant area for apples, apricots, wine grapes—if it's fruit you can grow a lot of it here," he says. And you can grow it wisely. "Most farmers here have hardwood forests, wetlands, and streams that they protect quite well. Because it's perennial agriculture, you don't have the same conflicts with row crops planted right up to the shoreline or streambank," he explains. "Saving farms saves habitat as well as the family farm paradigm."

Tom Nelson's years of advocacy and his lifelong love of nature have given him an alternative definition for "progress." "I think progress is a balance in leaving things alone," he says, adding, "there are ways humans can live in harmony with the rest of the planet—that shows in everything I do every day. If we're smart we can arrive at solutions." As for that second trip to law school, VLS has brought him to an enviable place. As he puts it, "I ended up exactly where I want to be."