Merck and VLT partner to protect 148 acres next to the Mettawee K-6 school

Pawlet, VT — As a new school year kicks into gear, students at the K-6 Mettawee Community School in West Pawlet will enjoy a dedicated 148-acre campus for outdoor education, the Vermont Land Trust announced today. The land trust partnered with the Merck Forest & Farmland Center, helping them acquire and conserve the parcel, which is adjacent to the school. Merck will hold and manage the land, partnering with the school on educational programs.

As students across the country return to schools changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the classroom experience looks a little different for those whose schedule includes hands-on learning and nature exploration. Mettawee students were able to take advantage of the property over the past year, when COVID-19 forced educators to redesign the educational experience for elementary students.

“Going into the 20-21 school year, with COVID, we knew that there would be all kinds of changes, including having kids outdoors,” said Principal Brooke DeBonis. “Our students had PE classes outside on this land, every single week. And we were able to create a lot of new activities and opportunities for them.”

Access to the land has significantly expanded the Mettawee curriculum while keeping children safe. The school has organized biking, sledding, nature journaling, science, trail building and more. For many Mettawee students, these were new experiences.

“A lot of our students, based on where they live, had never been sledding, riding, bird-watching, snowshoeing, or hiking,” added DeBonis. “It’s so great for them to have the opportunity, to bring them happiness and joy.”

The Merck Forest & Farmland Center has been working with local schools to expand outdoor education in the region. Merck’s education staff continue to work closely with the Mettawee school to develop programs, train teachers, and plan for future uses.

“Merck Forest & Farmland Center has been partnering with regional schools to lead natural and land-based programming, such as field trips to our main campus, throughout our history,” said Merck Forest’s Executive Director Rob Terry. “Yet even in Vermont, access challenges can make outdoor learning difficult. Our partnership with the Mettawee Community School provides an exciting opportunity to explore what is possible when the access and distance are no longer barriers.”

The land trust and Merck have been in partnership for many years, following the protection of Merck’s 3,200-acre campus in 2015. Merck bought the Pawlet land in 2020 after the land trust helped secure funding for the purchase. This summer, the land was conserved for future generations.

“We’re thrilled to support Merck and the school in creating this magical place,” said VLT’s Donald Campbell. “It’s become clear that spending time outdoors is crucial for children. On top of that, the hard-working farming community of the Mettawee Valley hasn’t been able to access these kinds of experiences before. The creative partnership between Merck’s educators and school staff is dreaming up amazing things — we can’t wait to see what they do!”

Students can explore and learn about many parts of the natural landscape, from wetlands to hardwood forest, a hemlock deer yard, and even farm pasture.

The funding was provided by private foundations and was the final project of a ten-year, $2.1 million commitment to the land trust that enabled the protection of over 2,000 acres of farm- and forest-land in the Mettawee Valley. “This project is like a gift to the Mettawee community,” explained Campbell.

“We can see that being out on the land is giving kids the opportunity to be creative, to feel a sense of belonging, feel proud of what they do, share experiences and create memories together. There’s so much potential. There’s so much more we can do with the land,” said DeBonis.

Across its 40+ year history, the land trust has helped numerous communities protect land that is used for outdoor education. The Huntington Community Forest, created in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, is another recent addition to the list that includes lands in Brandon, Brattleboro, Putney, Newbury, Moretown, Newport, and Charlotte.

Photo credit: Caleb Kenna