By Karen Freeman
Virginia Farley, longtime resident of Vermont’s Mad River Valley, was a beloved and fiery conservationist -- known locally, statewide, regionally, and nationally as a crusader for the planet. Sadly, Virginia passed away in February 2022 at the age of 66. Her life’s work will be honored by the Farley Riverside Park, a welcoming public spot to be created on town-owned land along the Mad River in Waitsfield. The park is located on the west side of the Mad River and runs from approximately the midpoint of the bridge over the river near American Flatbread south to a point across from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Snows.
Born in New York City, Virginia spent many childhood summers on a family farm in County Mayo, Ireland, -- an experience that shaped her philosophy of life and land, and influenced her field of study in natural resource conservation at the University of Rhode Island and environmental law and policy from Vermont Law School, where she met her former husband, John "Jack" Byrne. From their home close by the Mad River, family, friends, and neighbors shared countless meals, conversed about the state of the planet and enjoyed time outside together. The arrival of their daughter Hilary in the 1980s further heightened Virginia’s tireless quest for a sustainable future.
After serving on several planning commissions, as a policy analyst, and writer/editor for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Virginia began her 20-year career with the Vermont Land Trust as regional director. Through passion, determination and innovation, she helped conserve a vast amount of Vermont working and wild lands, water resources, trails and scenic landscapes still protected to this day. Virginia took her conservation influence further, embarking on an additional 20-year career with the National Park Service Conservation Study/Stewardship Institute in Woodstock, VT, as leadership program director. She conducted workshops, courses and seminars on reflective conservation leadership, climate change, land conservation and “sense of place” discovery. She served on the board of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and completed the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows program.
As Hilary remembers, “When my mom wasn’t trying to save the planet and its natural resources, she could be found in the woods, hiking, cross-country skiing, kayaking or throwing down on the dance floor.” Virginia became a thread that wove together kindred spirits connected by a deep love for the land. Described by her friends as feisty, sharp, playful, loving, motivated, insightful, artistic, innovative, and persistent, Virginia always looked for ways to solve difficult problems. As Hilary suggests, her mom “will always be remembered for the beautiful legacy of farms and fields, and streams and rivers she protected across the state of Vermont.”
Since her passing, a group of friends and family has worked with the town of Waitsfield and the Vermont Land Trust to celebrate her life by creating a new community resource: the Farley Riverside Park. A fitting convergence of her life’s work, this 7-acre parcel along the Mad River in Waitsfield is land that Virginia led an effort to protect several decades ago. The land serves as a buffer for an adjacent downstream town park that was subsequently created. It also contributes to a watershed-wide effort to keep development out of the floodplain.
Plans for the park include natural landscaping and a stone bench mimicking the famous Irish stonework called the Poulnabrone Dolmen tomb found in the Burren, County Clare, which was a favorite gathering spot for an exchange group of U.S. and Irish land conservation professionals that Virginia co-organized. The park will also include story trails and interpretive signage to inspire others to treasure and safeguard land and nature. The Farley Riverside Park will become a community asset for years to come.
The goal for funding the project is $60,000, including an endowment for future stewardship. To date, we have raised $22,000 from family and friends. We are now reaching out to a broader circle of people in the communities who knew Virginia and asking for support to help us to establish the park. This will be a “forever project” for everyone to enjoy.
Tax-deductible donations toward the project can be made through November 30, 2022, either online through the Vermont Land Trust website: www.join.vlt.org or by sending a check to the Trust with a note directing it to the Farley Riverside Park project: Vermont Land Trust, 8 Bailey Avenue, Montpelier, VT 05602. Thank you.
Freeman lives in Montpelier.