A majestic valley just south of Emigrant Lake off Buckhorn Springs Road seems an unlikely location for a new 2,000-acre college that would turn the diverse and rugged landscape into its main classroom.

Ashland residents Brooks and Rod Newton's ambitious vision would convert the property, which was once a way station on the stagecoach route to San Francisco, into the Novalis Institute, devoted to a curriculum involving organic agriculture, forest management and wildlife habitat restoration.

“We have had this dream for many years,” Brooks said. “This is the last quarter of our life, and we want do something that will help future generations.”

The Newtons, who run Hidden Springs Wellness Center in Ashland, have proposed building a 500-student and staff campus with 78 residences, classrooms, laboratories, an amphitheater, lecture halls, a restaurant, a deli, a small campus store and other buildings. Existing pastureland would be turned into an organic farm. Scrub oak savannas would be rehabilitated to improve habitat for elk and deer. Dense groves of firs would offer students hands-on field work for forest management practices.

“We’re using the land as our classroom,” Brooks said. 

“We want the residential buildings so that people can live out on the land," Rod said.

The Novalis application with the county faces some stiff scrutiny because the project conflicts with Oregon’s strict land-use laws, particularly laws intended to protect farmland and resource land from urbanization. Jackson County Development Services, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Land Conservation and Development have raised concerns about the project, which would disrupt one of the best deer and elk habitats in the county.

In a review of the Novalis application, the county Planning Division stated, “There is no precedent in Jackson County or the state of Oregon for a development of this nature, and, consequently, the evidence and argument involved in justifying such a proposal is challenging.”

The campus would be clustered on 21 acres of an 80-acre parcel within the property at 800 Buckhorn Springs Road, the site of a defunct water bottling plant. By comparison, the SOU campus is 175 acres.

According to a Novalis transportation review, the campus would generate 778 vehicle trips a day. The increased trips would exceed the capacity of Buckhorn Springs Road by 191 percent, based on data Novalis obtained from the Oregon Department of Transportation. Highway 66 would increase from 7 percent of vehicle capacity to 13 percent.

Novalis proposes upgrading Buckhorn Springs Road from Highway 66 to the property so that the road could handle 8,629 vehicle trips a day. Buckhorn is currently a gravel road, but would be paved for about a mile under the proposal. A 180-space parking lot has been proposed near an existing barn and former post office.

The county, which has completed the initial review of the application, has recommended more analysis for transportation, water and sewage issues. No date has been scheduled yet to bring the project before the county Planning Commission, which would have to rule on the project before it goes to the Board of Commissioners.

The Newtons want to create a wildlife preserve on much of the land, which currently is connected to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and is less than a mile from Highway 66. A conservation agreement has been offered to the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

“As long as an educational institute is happening, it can’t be developed,” Rod said.

Southern Oregon University and other universities have sent letters endorsing the idea and want to collaborate with the campus. Novalis has proposed a shuttle service for students from SOU and from Rogue Community College in Medford.

The Newtons say it will cost from $6 million to $8 million to start out with one or two classrooms and other buildings. They want to eventually expand the campus into an approximately $40 million facility.

Initially, the campus would serve as an extension facility for other schools in the state, the Newtons said, adding Novalis would seek accreditation if the college proves successful.

Doug Hammond, executive director for the not-for-profit Novalis Project, said the operating budget for 2016 is $250,000, which will pay for legal fees and other contractors.

To finance the project, Hammond said he will seek grants and investors and reach out to philanthropists who are interested in various aspects of the project.

“It will be a long, slow process,” he said. “We’re not going to get ahead of the financing or the demand.”

In the initial phase, roads will be built and a building or two will be constructed at the campus site, he said. Hammond said there are 20 or more core people involved in the project so far.

Hammond said he’s been involved in the New England Businesses for Social Responsibility and other sustainable business ventures.

The location of the campus is in the midst of a scrub oak savanna, is zoned exclusive farm use, has rocky, marginal soil and sits less than a quarter-mile up a gentle hill from Buckhorn Springs Road and the Talent Irrigation Ditch.

The campus would be situated on the site of a former small garbage dump and on the old stagecoach route through the hills. A post office on the property has been restored by the Newtons and will serve as a welcome center. A hotel that used to be part of the way station burned down a long time ago. An old barn with timbers attached by wooden pegs is still standing on the property and will be preserved.

The Newtons purchased about 2,400 acres in the area on Sept. 26, 2014, at a cost of $1.75 million, according to Jackson County records. Brooks Newton is the great-granddaughter of James D. Oliver, an inventor who owned a farm equipment company at the turn of the last century. The Newtons gained some public attention when they opposed a cell tower planned near their Hidden Springs Wellness Center in 2010.

The Novalis Institute is already hosting events in Ashland, including a lecture on "sacred activism" by author Andrew Harvey. According to the Novalis website, “Sacred activism is a transforming force of compassion-in-action that is born of a fusion of deep spiritual knowledge, courage, love, and passion, with wise radical action in the world.”

The Newtons have assembled an attorney, wildlife experts and other professionals, some of whom have donated their time to the project.

“We don’t have the expertise ourselves, but we have plenty of experts who’ve come forward,” Rod said.

The Newtons have been thinking about a project like this for more than a decade. They bought a large tract of land in the forest east of Redding but eventually decided it was too far from any existing university campuses. At the time, they had seen the Buckhorn Springs property, but it wasn’t on the market. When the Buckhorn land became available, the couple said they realized it could fulfill their goal of creating a new type of campus.

“The leaders of tomorrow need to be educated in the ecosystems and how to work with them to regenerate them," Rod said. "We thought to ourselves, what is an institute we can come up with that will train the leaders of tomorrow to be the most effective to help humanity and the planet?”

Neighbors Donna and Sky Delight said they generally like the concept of the school, and they describe the Newtons as intelligent, open and friendly people with lofty goals.

“I still have the feeling that they have overstepped reality,” said Donna.

The Delights looked over the latest set of plans and found the project about four times larger than they imagined based on discussions they had with the Newtons last year.

“That sounds like a full-sized college,” Sky said.

The Delights are relieved the property isn’t going to be subdivided and turned into houses, but expressed concern about 500 people traveling up their road to the campus.

“We’re country people,” Sky said. “We’re hesitant to see this much growth.”

Mark Vargas, biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there has been some dispute between the county and the Novalis attorney about whether the property is in the winter range for black-tailed deer. But for Vargas, there is no dispute.

“It is in the winter range,” he said. “Where they are proposing, it is one of the best deer winter ranges in the valley.”

Vargas said he has been working with a biologist representing Novalis to determine ways to mitigate disrupting an area that is used by deer and elk for foraging. He said elk traverse the area year-round.

Even though there is a proposed agreement between Novalis and ODFW in the county application, Vargas said it doesn’t mean they’re close to a resolution.

He said a mitigation process will be discussed in public before any agreements are reached.

Dan O’Connor, a Medford land-use attorney representing Novalis, stated in the project application that the property is not in the deer and elk winter range.

O’Connor said there have been discussions about the winter range issue, but he said Novalis wants to work with ODFW and take whatever steps are necessary to maintain the existing wildlife habitat.

“We’re not trying to go around anything on this,” he said. “We’ve agreed with Fish and Wildlife to work on an agreement about this.”

O’Connor also disagreed with the county’s assessment that there are no other projects of this magnitude that have been sited on resource land. He said schools and wineries are examples of projects on rural land.

The 50,000 gallons of sewage that would be generated each day at the college would be processed in a septic system. O’Connor stated there were larger septic systems in the region, including at Crater Lake Lodge. He said schools in rural areas also have large septic systems.

Rod Newton said he’s committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the wildlife habitat. He said he wants to work with experts who will improve grazing areas to encourage deer and elk to roam the 2,000 acres. He referred to O’Connor’s dispute over the wildlife habitat issue as “lawyer speak.”

“We want to do what ODFW wants us to do,” he said. “We want to set up monitoring of the deer and elk population.”

Newton said he thinks the monitoring could become part of the college’s curriculum and serve as an example of how to improve wildlife habitat.

He said the 50,000-gallon number for the septic system is probably high because the campus will attempt to conserve water as much as possible. Newton said gray-water systems and composting toilets are two possibilities to help minimize the amount of sewer water generated.

Josh LeBombard, Southern Oregon regional representative for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, said the project raises several concerns.

“The question, as far as we’re concerned, is it appropriate to have that kind of urban facility out in a rural environment?” LeBombard said.

Schools can be built in rural areas under Oregon law, but LeBombard said they have to serve a rural population. The Novalis college would have residences on the campus, which would be a far different use than a rural elementary school.

Other questions are what would happen to the buildings if the college fails and would the use be converted to some other kind of purpose, LeBombard said.

He said there have been various projects placed on rural land previously but none like this proposal.

“Nobody has come up with something that is similar enough,” he said.

The campus would require 68,000 gallons of water a day. The existing well, which produces 40 gallons per minute, generates 57,600 gallons a day, according to the Novalis application. Novalis proposes drilling other wells on the property.

Because the campus also would be involved in farming, it would require additional water rights from the Talent Irrigation District, according to the application.

Ron Khosla, lead farm consultant for Novalis, said he will work with students to find ways to improve the sticky clay soil, which is nutrient rich but doesn’t allow much oxygen to the roots of plants.

“It’s the same kind of soil a lot of people are struggling with in tropical countries,” he said.

Khosla, who is the inventor of the CoolBot, which turns a small room into a cold-storage area for vegetables by modifying a window-mounted air conditioner to bring the temperature down to 35 degrees, said he would have students work on test patches to determine the best techniques to improve the soil.

He said students also would experiment with dry land farming.

An agricultural consultant and volunteer at a small farm at SOU, Khosla said there are 160 irrigated acres on the Novalis property.

The University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Goddard College in Vermont have sent letters supporting the project. SOU has drafted a memorandum of understanding to work with Novalis and expand on the environmental program already available.

“We are totally in support,” said Greg Jones, director of the division of business at SOU. “The opportunities they would provide would fill in a tremendous number of gaps in the academic program we would provide.”

He said the supporters of Novalis have spent considerable effort connecting with the academic community.

Jones said SOU already has worked with Novalis on projects, including sustainable farm management through ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland.

He said the Buckhorn property is located about 10 to 15 minutes from SOU, which would allow field trips and lab work nearby. Students would get the chance for hands-on experience working at Emigrant Creek, in riparian areas and forests and on farmland, Jones said.

Jones said he hasn’t been contacted recently about the project and assumed that Novalis was trying to make it through the bureaucratic process for approval.

“I got the feeling there was some deep pockets in the group,” he said.

Dennis Slattery, an SOU professor and former Ashland city councilman, said he thinks the Novalis Institute is an ambitious project but would be an invaluable educational asset for the state.

He said he realizes there are many challenges for the project to overcome, but feels it’s absolutely necessary to help deal with issues confronting the world, such as climate change.

“I think it’s one of those projects that this generation should be setting up for future generations,” Slattery said. “It’s actually a fascinating group of people that have big plans. It’s also a huge amount of commitment on their part. I wouldn’t bet against them. They have a huge amount of hurdles, and they will knock them down one at a time.”

For more information, visit www.novalisproject.org.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.