A force of nature: Hub Vogelmann

Hubert "Hub" Vogelmann, a longtime professor of botany at UVM and a leader in conservation efforts in Vermont, died Oct. 11, 2013, at the age of 84.

Hubert “Hub” Vogelmann was a longtime professor of botany at UVM and a leader in conservation efforts in Vermont.

Vermont has lost a great man. Hubert “Hub” Vogelmann, whose work in environmental conservation profoundly influenced both state and national policy, died on Oct. 11 at the age of 84.

Vogelmann’s memorial service at the University of Vermont on Saturday was attended by a crowd of nearly 200. Each of the eight speakers lauded Vogelmann’s professional accomplishments, and painted a picture of a loving, gentle man.

Sen. Patrick Leahy described Vogelmann as “a great man and dear friend,” and “I looked to him to place the conservation issues of our time at the top of the national agenda.”

Among Vogelmann’s achievements in conservation, some have said that he is responsible for the conservation of 10 percent of the land area of Vermont. Vogelmann’s efforts with the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy led to the protection of Camel’s Hump, Mount Mansfield, the Missisquoi marsh, and his beloved Shelburne Pond.

It was on Camel’s Hump that Vogelmann studied forest succession, which led to research that revealed the effect of acid rain on trees, which in turn led to amendments to the national Clean Air Act that limited industrial air pollution.

It was on Mount Mansfield that Vogelmann was inspired to protect rare alpine ecosystems from development, inspiration that led to the passage of Act 250, Vermont’s land-use law.

Vogelmann was a man of the land, and it was his deep connection with the forests, waterways and wetlands of Vermont, and his unflinching drive to protect those ecosystems that led to his remarkable success as a conservationist.

Vogelmann was raised in Buffalo, N.Y. Though he grew up in the city, his father took him fishing on weekends, fostering a lifelong passion for the sport. He attended Heidelberg College in Ohio, then received masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan.

Vogelmann and his wife Marie moved to Vermont in 1955 to begin his long tenure at UVM as a professor of botany. Within a few years they bought a run-down farm on Schillhammer Road in Jericho and began to rebuild it.

During his time at UVM, Vogelmann “personified excellence in scholarship, research, teaching, and his love for the community,” said UVM President Tom Sullivan.

Vogelmann was a popular teacher and became good friends with professors in departments academically distant from his own. He revitalized the university’s herbarium, a library of pressed plant specimens used by botanists for research. He chaired the botany department for 16 of the 36 years he worked at UVM and became a major fundraiser for the university.

In the mid-1960s Vogelmann and his student Tom Siccama began surveying trees on Camel’s Hump. Twenty years later, they found that over half of the red spruce had died. That discovery led to Vogelmann’s highly influential research on acid rain, which culminated in a famous article in Natural History magazine in 1982. Vogelmann’s research spurred a national study on acid rain, which in turn led to 1990 amendments to the national Clean Air Act to curb industrial pollution.

In 1983, just eight years before he retired, Vogelmann founded the Field Naturalist Program. According to the current director of the program, Jeffrey Hughes, Vogelmann witnessed the increasing specialization of science and wondered where the next great generalists would come from — the John Muirs, the Aldo Leopolds, and the Rachel Carsons. Who, in the next generation, would understand the science, yet be able to speak eloquently and compellingly to non-scientists? Who would have the spunk and courage to tackle difficult environmental problems? The Field Naturalist Program, a professional master’s program, has trained well over a 100 naturalists to date, most of whom are still working hard to honor Vogelmann’s teachings.

In addition to his university responsibilities, over his career Vogelmann served on more than 20 state and national environmental boards and groups. In 1979 Vogelmann opened the field office for the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy. That organization eventually bought 20 separate tracts around Shelburne Pond, Vogelmann’s favorite fishing hole. He founded the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that has conserved 200,000 acres in Vermont and 7 million acres nationally.

Pat Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund, said that Vogelmann “significantly influenced our generation” and his work “led to the widest period of environmental legislation in Vermont and the nation.”

While Vogelmann’s influence has been compared to that of George Perkins Marsh and Rachel Carson, he was humble. Every day he walked up and down his road in Jericho, picking up trash. As a scientist, he compulsively tallied the brands of aluminum cans and found a preponderance of Budweisers. Being a conservationist, Vogelmann wrote to Anheuser-Busch, urging them to do something to curb the despoilment of Vermont’s countryside. A spokesperson wrote back, saying, “We are delighted to learn of the popularity of our beer. …”

Vogelmann fostered friendships in a wide variety of places and garnered respect from many.

One of Vogelmann’s close friends, English professor emeritus Bob Cochran, said, “He had no figurative warts, and if he had any literal warts he would have known how to remove them with milkweed.”

Even Vogelmann’s detractors came to respect him, said Bob Klein, the recently retired director of the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

What Vogelmann taught his students and colleagues was a simple truth: One person can make a difference.

In his personal life, Vogelmann was just as influential and beloved. His sons spoke of growing up on the family’s “hobby farm,” where they raised 30 head of cattle — apparently his wife Marie once greeted him at the door, saying, “You always smell like a cow or fish.” His sons recalled piling into their Volkswagen microbus for trips to Mexico City, the Everglades, and northern Ontario. And his son Jim reminisced about ice fishing with a father who seemed impervious to cold. Once, Vogelmann advised Jim to, “take off your gloves, you’ll be able to feel the fish bite better.”

Vogelmann’s sons take after their father: all three are scientists, two are plant biologists, and one is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM.

In his autobiographical book “On Schillhammer Road: the Life of a Botanist,” published in 2011 by The Tamarac Press, Vogelmann wrote that if he had it to do all over again, he would marry Marie, raise three boys, and tend his garden and bees on Schillhammer Road.

Vogelmann was a beekeeper, a farmer, a fisherman. He was a scientist, a teacher, a naturalist. He was a leader, a man of great stature, yet never made others feel small. He was a philanthropist and highly successful fundraiser, a spokesperson for the trees and the wildlife, an explorer and a rooted homesteader.

A few weeks before his death, Vogelmann’s son Jim pushed him in his wheelchair along the road, under the turning maples. The man whose life’s work was giving, whose gifts changed the world profoundly, thought only of the gifts he had received.

He said, “Everyone has been so nice to me.”

Contributions honoring Hub Vogelmann and in support of the Field Naturalist Program may be made to the Hub Vogelmann Fund, c/o The UVM Foundation, 411 Main St. Burlington, VT 05401. Written tributes to Vogelmann can be found on the Field Naturalist blog.

Disclosure: Audrey Clark is a graduate of the Field Naturalist Program.

Audrey Clark

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