by Terence P Ward
Driving through the city and adjacent town of Poughkeepsie, it may be hard to imagine that there’s a nature preserve of well over 400 acres hidden behind that urban landscape, but it’s true. In fact, the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve property is 527 acres attached to the eponymous college, 416 of which are actively managed as a preserve, complete with trails that are open to the public. That such a gem is largely unknown outside of the college community is a problem that the Vassar Conservation and Environmental Engagement Cooperative (VCEE COOP) is trying to solve. This relatively new organization has the mission of coordinating community outreach on environmental issues, for the college itself and in the region.
The Phenology Trail provides a wooded space for people to
study the seasonal changes in various plants, trees, and
animals. Photo by Maria Garcia.
The VCEE COOP was established thanks to a $997,564 grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. In part, the grant money is being used to renovate 5,600 square feet of one of the farm’s barns for use as office space. The grant also made it possible to hire Jennifer Rubbo as the first manager of the co-op, as well as a director for EMMA, the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance, which is a joint effort by several preserves in the region to coordinate science-based environmental protection efforts. Once construction is completed around January, the renovated space will house those two organizations as well as the regional office for the Student Conservation Association, which was actually founded by Vassar alumna Liz Putnam. The co-op will also become a neighbor to and collaborator with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, which uses portions of the farm’s land that are not dedicated as a preserve.
The mission of VCEE COOP is to “centralize and consolidate environmental research, outreach and education activities at the college while inspiring and enabling further use of Vassar’s environmental resources by the college, community residents, and visitors,” a task which Rubbo acknowledged is “a lot.” Identifying goals and focusing the efforts is her first priority. “I’m in an information-gathering phase now,” she said, familiarizing herself with the many environmental organizations and efforts in the region, and “trying to find our niche in the Hudson Valley. The main goal is to raise awareness about conservation in the region, as well as other environmental issues.”
It’s a good location, as environmental research has been conducted on the preserve for some time. The first 200 acres of the land destined to become the farm and preserve were purchased by the college back in 1895 for an experimental sewage-treatment procedure. It was used as a “settling field,” an alternative to pumping raw waste into the Casperkill Creek, and an innovation in its time. An adjacent 300-acre parcel was donated in 1911, and the college moved its entire farming operation there until the 1950s, when producing food for the campus community was deemed impractical. The preserve was created in 1976, and the first field laboratories began working two years later.
Nature Illustration Workshop taught by Rick Jones. Photo by
While she doesn’t anticipate fully articulating an initial set of goals until January, Rubbo is certainly focused on the many ways outreach can break the ivory-tower barrier colleges can build up over time. She wants to raise awareness of the preserve itself, encouraging the public to take advantage of this “oasis” more often, and wants to see what programs might be developed in conjunction with local public schools. “We’re trying to make people aware of it,” Rubbo said. “This is a resource in this urban-suburban setting that people can use, connecting with nature and learning more about the environment by being in it.” Research being conducted at the preserve now can be relevant to local property owners, such as how to identify invasive plant species, particularly vines, and prevent them from killing native trees. Once she has a sense of the big picture in the Hudson Valley, she expects to have more specifics. “We don’t want to duplicate efforts,” she said. “We do want to help facilitate what’s already happening, as well as start new programs.”
Even before those goals are finalized, there are plenty of programs to which the general public has been invited. Those events have included guided nature walks, lectures on wildlife, and outdoor yoga; many of the functions are led by faculty members. For example, on November 20 faculty member Rick Jones will lead an illustration workshop on how to draw nature.
More information on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve and VCEE COOP can be found at vassar.edu.