Vermont Institute of Natural Science at 40 celebration October 21
Its roots started small, growing from a single seed of an idea to study the Ottauquechee River. When David Laughlin embarked upon that study in 1970, and the subsequent fight to clean up the river, nobody expected that small seedling to grow into the strong, thriving, multi-stemmed tree that is VINS today. From its humble yet ambitious beginnings as a small, yet passionate group—David and Sally Laughlin, June McKnight, and Rick Farrar—assembling around a single environmental issue to its current incarnation as Vermont’s premier environmental education facility and destination Nature Center, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science proudly celebrates its 40th anniversary on October 21, 2012 as a member of the Upper Valley community.
The VINS seedling grew into a ambitious young sapling when the very first Environmental Learning for the Future (ELF) program was begun in 1973, a year after VINS was founded. Since then, VINS has been engaging and serving the Vermont and New Hampshire community with an array of current-science-based, timely, and targeted yet diversified educational programs. As a 501(c)(3) organization, all of this work was and is funded through private donations, program fees, and admissions; VINS receives no state or federal funding.
VINS programs have gone on to win numerous awards, its educators have been invited to teach in other countries, and most importantly, the lessons have become an integral part of environmental learning in the Upper Valley and beyond. Thousands of area children have grown up with VINS and taken the lessons they’ve learned about environmental responsibility and sustainability with them into their adult lives. VINS’ lessons have also been spread worldwide through the 1986 publication and 2000 revision of Hands On Nature: Information and Activities for Exploring the Environment with Children.
With generous feeding and strong support, the sapling grew quickly to a healthy pole-sized tree as, in 1974, VINS received a donation of 57 acres on Church Hill in Woodstock for their new headquarters. Additional generous donations enabled the remodeling of the property’s existing barn into the group’s headquarters.
While VINS’ Wildlife Services Department began as an offshoot of the growing tree of the organization, it has become one of the central trunks of that tree. And once again, it was the people of this great community who showed them the way. Once VINS become an established environmental nonprofit organization, the injured and orphaned birds found them, brought to founders David and Sally Laughlin by concerned citizens. As the number of birds grew, it was clear that a more permanent and professional facility was necessary to care for them, leading to the building of the Vermont Raptor Center (VRC) in 1987. VINS was then able to care for and administer medical services to the injured birds it received, and, in the beautiful outdoor enclosures, house non-releasable raptors and songbirds. Today, that need for care is still strong, as VINS’ ace team of wildlife rehabilitators takes in, nurses back to health, and releases hundreds of birds each year.
Today, the raptor displays are an integral part of everything VINS does at the Nature Center. The 50+ display and education birds serve as the centerpiece of the campus and provide VINS’ educators the opportunity to teach by experience. All of the resident birds serve as ambassadors of their species and of nature itself. Children and adults alike have the same sparkle of wonder in their eyes when they see VINS’ birds and programs. The vision of a Harris’ hawk flying 100 yards to snatch up a lure in front of them, or being able to stare into the eyes of the nation’s national symbol, the bald eagle, never fails to impress, excite, and inspire.
VINS’ research arm sprouted early with its river studies and bird-banding and quickly also became a main stem of the tree, informing everything they did. In 1986, Chris Rimmer came aboard as director and nurtured a Conservation Biology program into an intense center of avian research that ranged from protecting endangered species in Vermont such as the Common Loon and Peregrine Falcon to forest bird monitoring. Past Board President Jen Lingelbach commented on the way that VINS research has become increasingly recognized: “Our voices are worth listening to. That credibility is one of the wonderful cornerstones of the founding of VINS.” A new seed was born from the healthy, mature tree of VINS into its own organism, as the Conservation Biology program broke off from VINS in 2006 to become the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.
VINS’ dedication to research continues unabated. Every year, the organization sponsors and hosts student researchers from Vermont and New Hampshire universities and colleges. For example, in 2012, a Green Mountain College student studied the ecology of pollinators in and around the Nature Center’s wildflower meadow, leading to management action. In the summer, a portion of the meadow was tilled and seeded to encourage a new and more diverse assemblage of plant species. VINS is also part of OCISMA, the Ottauquechee Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, a multi-member partnership (Ottauquechee Natural Resource Conservation District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Got Weeds?, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources) focused on the goal of identifying and removing invasive plants from the Ottauquechee watershed.
Relocating in 2004 to Quechee on Rte. 4 right next to Quechee Gorge, on the banks of the river that gave the organization its inspiration and inception, was a fitting step in VINS’ evolution. The tree needed more space to thrive, and the Quechee location provided easier access for visitors. This has allowed VINS’ educators and rehabilitators to become a more visible and valuable presence in the community and also enabled the organization to sow the seeds of environmental awareness and sustainability further and wider. VINS’ mission—to motivate individuals and communities to care for the environment through education, research, and avian wildlife rehabilitation—has been honed by 40 years of hard work, trial and error, and inspiration into the key programs that the organization now focuses on at the 47-acre Nature Center campus. Visitors from all over New England and beyond come to visit their favorite raptors, learn about the natural world, and gain a respite from their day-to-day lives.
VINS continues to explore new initiatives and challenges that tackle timely environmental issues, present up-to-date programs to help educate the community, and care for the more wild, avian members of the region. Looking ahead at projects to start off the next 40 years, VINS will be working on a number of exciting ventures. In the education realm, they’ve initiated the Naturalist-in-Residence program, a new outreach venture to local schools that teams up a VINS educator with science teachers to develop curricula that meet Core standards and assist the teacher in the classroom. On the Nature Center grounds, VINS will be upgrading their nature trails to make them compliant with ABA (Architectural Barriers Act of 1968) accessibility standards. This will increase their capacity to attract and accommodate Vermont and New Hampshire residents and tourists with limited mobility, including the region's growing elderly population and families with young children. VINS also continues to update and add to their popular camp offerings and onsite educational programs.
From onsite and in-school programs to their role as Vermont’s avian rehabilitator center, VINS can certainly be proud of its achievements, and while this has been a testament to the quality of their educators and staff, none of the success would have been possible without the curiosity, passion, vision, and generosity of the community that supports them. This 40th birthday is not just a celebration of VINS, it’s a celebration of the people of their home base—the Upper Valley, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New England. All can be proud of what VINS has become. VINS thanks you for supporting them these past 40 years, and they invite everyone to their birthday party on October 21 at the Nature Center. For more details about the party and about VINS programs, log on to our website, www.vinsweb.org, and our blog, vtnature.blogspot.com.