New sanctuary puts learners in nature

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE PROFESSOR Emeritus Stephen Trombulak studies a crowned kinglet with students in what is now a nature sanctuary dedicated in his honor. The college’s dedication of 60 acres along Otter Creek recognizes the area as an important resource, which Trombulak often used for his natural history courses. Photo courtesy of Stephen Trombulak

MIDDLEBURY — Over his three decades as an accomplished scientist and educator at Middlebury College, Steve Trombulak spent plenty of time lecturing inside under fluorescent lights, but he loved getting his students outside on the land. The emeritus professor of biology and environmental studies explained in a 2015 video that as a young man he felt empowered by getting out in nature, and looked to do the same for young people he taught.

“You can walk out the door of Bicentennial Hall and you’re in an outdoor classroom,” he said in the video. “I really like introducing them to the natural world, but also helping to engage their thinking about what their path is going to be — how will they make the world a better place.”

Middlebury College honored that effort and enabled more of it last month when it dedicated 60 acres of land along Otter Creek as the Stephen C. Trombulak Nature Sanctuary, which will continue to be used for the hands-on study of bird, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, carbon sequestration and wetland function.

Marc Lapin, a lands conservationist and associate laboratory professor at the college, said the hope is that the dedication encourages a continued legacy of learning from and enjoying the land, both in and outside of the Middlebury College community.

“Today, many people think of the natural history and biology education as having to do a lot with laboratories,” he said. “The fundamentals of biology and environmental studies are out there in nature, observing nature where it operates with our naked eye.”

STEPHEN TROMBULAK, professor emeritus at Middlebury College, holds out a common yellowthroat for students to inspect during a bird-banding activity a few years back. Trombulak’s bird-banding work on this Middlebury land is part of why the college recently dedicated the area as a nature sanctuary in his honor.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Trombulak

The sanctuary is less than a mile south of downtown Middlebury, nestled between Otter Creek on the east and railroad tracks on the west. The area is home to a plethora of wildlife, including shagbark hickory trees, salamanders and short-tailed shrews.

In addition to being a great site for the study of wildlife, the new sanctuary has an important role for the broader community by protecting downtown Middlebury from damaging floods. As part of the Otter Creek’s swamp complex, the area’s wetland structure captures overflow during floods and slowly releases it over time.

A study done by Keri Watson for the Gund Institute and the University of Vermont found that the floodplains saved Middlebury $1.8 million in flood damage during Tropical Storm Irene, and in other flood events saved between $126,000 and $450,000 each year in damage reduction.

“This (land) is part of that whole complex that provides a flood mitigation function that’s really important to human infrastructure,” Lapin said. “It provides a lot of flood water storage, which keeps homes and buildings and bridges from being flooded out and destroyed.”

The sanctuary is accessible to the public via the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM). In addition to public use, the land has been used frequently by Middlebury College faculty for various courses, including Trombulak’s. During his 34 years teaching at the college, he would often take students into the wetlands to study the area’s natural history.

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE’S STEPHEN Trombulak last month stands in the wetland that was recently dedicated as a nature sanctuary in his honor. The college’s dedication of the land recognizes Trombulak’s field work in the land and the area’s importance as an educational resource.
Photo by Paul Dahm/Middlebury College

He also used the space as a bird-banding station through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s banding program. For three decades, he and his students captured, banded and released over 70 species of birds at the station. Lapin said Trombulak’s bird-banding work in the wetlands was part of why the college decided to dedicate the land in his honor.

“At the beginning of his career at Middlebury right off he started using (the land) for teaching, set up a bird-banding system and maintained that as the longest continuous banding station in the state,” Lapin explained.


Trombulak said he is just one of many Middlebury faculty members who use the land for their courses, and he hopes the dedication will lead to a greater awareness of the space and an opportunity to incorporate the land into more of the college’s curriculum.

“I really hope it raises the profile among the college faculty, not just in the sciences. Any part of the liberal arts and science curriculum can benefit from having their students spend some time outside in wild land,” he said.

Lapin stressed that the land provides plentiful learning opportunities for the public as well, who are encouraged to continue visiting the land.

“Now, more people hopefully know of (the land’s) existence,” he said. “There is definitely the hope that more people will be nourished by it and learn in and from this area.”

The sanctuary will continue to be cared for by the college’s facilities services, which has maintained the land for over three decades. Trombulak credits the facilities staff and their work in managing the land, as their efforts have helped maintain the land as a resource for the community.

Lapin said he also hopes to collaborate with the Hannaford Career Center to manage the land as well, potentially by having students in the career center’s Natural Resource Management course help take care of the sanctuary, as they have previously at Middlebury’s Wright Park. However, these plans are still very much in the early stages.

Trombulak, who now retired in 2019 and lives in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts, said he was honored by the college’s dedication. He hopes Addison County residents will seek out a resource that is right at their doorsteps.

“It’s an incredible honor to have my name attached to it and have the college recognize the importance of natural history education,” he said. “People move to Middlebury, and Vermont in general, in part because of an appreciation for nature and, at a minimum, to have access to the more than just human world. The sanctuary gives them another way to do that.”

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