VINS History

The Founding of VINS

The genesis of VINS traces back to 1970. David Laughlin, a local Woodstock dentist, agreed to spearhead a study of the Ottauquechee River proposed by one of his patients. The pristine waters of the Ottauquechee that we enjoy today were badly polluted by waste and runoff. Joining Dr. Laughlin’s effort were Rick Farrar, Sally Laughlin, and June McKnight, local professionals from the Woodstock area. The group's efforts mounted and ultimately led to the first water quality litigation in the state.

The group's momentum continued even after the victorious cleanup of the River; they thought that there must be a way to preserve the future of the River and eventually came up with the idea of an environmental organization aimed at kids. Thus was born the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in 1972.

VINS’ mission stressed education as a way to change attitudes and maintain a healthy environment. Sally Laughlin led the effort to pull together bird banding (which she was learning from Farrar at the banding station in Woodstock Country School in South Woodstock), the river work, and educational activities—all of which became the foundation of VINS.

Following Rick Farrar’s two-year tenure as Executive Director, Sally Laughlin succeeded him in 1974. For the next 18 years, she steered the growth of VINS to more than 5,000 members across Vermont and established education programs statewide. ELF (Environmental Learning for the Future) developed out of the need to run a program with volunteers growing organically with local parents exploring the environment with their kids. One of the parents was Jenepher Lingelbach, who became Interim Executive Director in 1993. She also served as Board President from 2001 to 2004.

The Ottauquechee River

As early environmentalists, Sally Laughlin and Dr. David Laughlin fought for clean water on the Ottauquechee River in the early 1970s and helped change the way Vermonters thought about their rivers. Learn more about their environmental journey in an interview excerpt from chapter thirteen of the book Fly Fishing & Conservation in Vermont: Stories of the Battenkill and Beyond by Author Tim Traver.*

*For a signed copy of the book or chapter thirteen, please contact Tim Traver at

June H. McKnight
ELF Begins in 1973
Sarah B. Laughlin

Early Years

In 1986, the ELF curriculum was published by VINS as Hands-On Nature, and within three years the book was revised with the new edition earning several awards. In 2002, VINS’ education programs reached over 35,000 schoolchildren and 26,000 adults annually throughout Vermont and beyond. Today, the environmental education component has evolved into VINS School Programs, which operates in twenty-five schools throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. It integrates STEM learning into its inventive, inquiry-based science curriculum that aligns with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), while also incorporating a reputable professional teacher development program.

From the early years, the research program at VINS was also heavily dependent on volunteers, whether bird banding or trekking around Vermont on a bird count -- the latter of which is fully recognized in VINS events and our current Citizen Science program.

Bird banding was eventually discontinued. In 1986, the Conservation Biology program was formed and supported the protection of endangered species in VT and forest bird monitoring.The latter component morphed into a new format, which is presently integrated into the Overnight Nature Camp program at VINS’ Old Pepper Place Nature Reserve in Washington, Vermont. For an entire week, young campers work within the 327-acre property to learn best practices of forestry combined with monitoring of species in these particular woodlands, so that data may be collected to help local property owners preserve their land.

Early donors - In 1974 June McKnight’s gift through the Nature Conservancy of land and barn on Church Hill was given in memory of her friend Marjorie Bragdon. The land consisted of 57 acres and included the barn structure near the road. Earning the welcome financial support of Dan Meyers and a hefty grant award from the Kresge Foundation in Michigan, the next steps for construction were completed. Laurance Rockefeller helped with the auditorium as did Woodstock architect Charles Helmer, who donated architectural design.

Conservation Biology at VINS
Bicknell's thrush
VINS History

The Raptor Center & Move to Quechee

The year 1982 marked VINS plans for the Vermont Raptor Center. According to David Laughlin, "People were bringing us injured birds all of the time.” The goal was to be not only a rehabilitation place but also an educational place. The Raptor Center opened to the public in 1987, with a behind-the-scenes-infirmary and an exhibit area for visitors to observe resident hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls. Visitation reached 25,000 per year within just a couple of years.

By the mid-1990s, VINS was earnestly exploring alternatives to expand beyond Woodstock and so began looking for a site for a larger center that would accommodate the growing staff and programs, as well as thousands of visitors. In achieving their aim of finding both a naturally beautiful and easily accessible location, they finalized the purchase of 47 acres—from the Quechee, Izzo family—of rolling forestland near the Quechee gorge in 2001.

In June 2004, the VINS Nature Center was opened to the public – 47 acres of the newly acquired land remained largely undisturbed. Built with green construction practices and materials, such as high-energy efficient windows and soy-based insulation foam, the VINS Nature Center combines both construction and conservation in its unique, natural design. For instance, work surfaces are made from sunflower seed hulls and many of the chairs, desks, and meeting tables are manufactured from FSC certified lumber that was harvested from sustainable growth forests.

While numerous individual donors, foundations, local businesses contributed generously to the completion of the center, we highlight and praise the formidable work of the late Senator James Jeffords in securing significant federal funding toward completion of the new facility.


Old Pepper Place Nature Reserve

In 2013, Old Pepper Place Nature Reserve, an "off the grid," self-sustaining, seasonal property was bequeathed to VINS by good friends. This historic property, located in Washington, Vermont, consists of 327 acres of managed forest, walking trails and conserved land. The site is graced with several striking structures including a charming, 19th-century farmhouse and a large, weathered, historic barn. It also supports several streams, wetlands, and a pond. VINS maintains solar arrays on the property to reduce our carbon footprint and has built rustic amenities on the property including composting toilets, an outdoor shower and two tent platforms. This property hosts our overnight camp programs and has a breeding bird census each year that began in 2021.

Jeffords Dedication
VINS Arial
VINS Opening

VINS Today

Today, headquartered in Quechee, VT, on 47 acres of forest, meadow, and rolling hills, VINS features 17 state-of-the-art raptor enclosures that house hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, and other birds of prey. In addition, the site has two songbird aviaries, which are home to a cedar waxwing and northern cardinal among other species. The facility includes four major centers: the Visitor Welcome Center and Nature Store, the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation (CWBR), the Center for Environmental Education (CEE), and the Center for Field Research (CFR). VINS also has an indoor and outdoor classroom, interpretive nature trails (the McKnight trail and Forest Canopy Walk are ADA/ABA compliant), a heated four-season Neale Pavilion and an outdoor August Pavilion designed for exhibits, events, meetings, and live raptor programs.

Programs at VINS are expanding all of the time. The naturally landscaped campus bustles with ongoing, stimulating, educational exhibits, events, live bird and reptile programs, activities for visitors of all ages including hiking, field trips, behind-the-scenes tours, nature camp, and environmental education programs. Among the exhibits supported by private donors and local businesses are the Forest Canopy Walk, Birds Are Dinosaurs exhibit, Adventure Playscape, and the Forest Exhibit. In 2022 we celebrated our 50 Year Anniversary and we are grateful for the generous support from each member, visitor, and volunteer.

Birds Are Dinosaurs
Nature Trails
Nature Camp
Play Video

VINS 50 Year Anniversary Slideshow

Over the last 50 Years, through growth, change, and adversity, VINS has become a true destination for visitors to Vermont and the Upper Valley. This last year alone more than 69,000 visitors learned about raptors, native species, and the environment in which they live. These adults and children learned how they can participate in the care of our natural world, helping to fulfill VINS mission of motivating individuals and communities to care for the environment through education, research, and avian wildlife rehabilitation.