Commentary
12:18 pm
Mon October 21, 2013

Slayton: Hub Vogelman

Hubert “Hub” Vogelmann, who died recently, was one of Vermont’s true environmental pioneers.

Hub was a scientist, a botanist to be specific, and was head of the University of Vermont’s Botany Department for many years.

He was also a really nice man, a scholar who never seemed scholarly, with a winning smile that could disarm any opponent, a gentle sense of humor, and a wealth of factual scientific information that he used skillfully to protect Vermont’s environment.

He came to Vermont with a doctorate in botany in 1955, when conservation organizations were few and far between, and joined other Vermonters who loved the natural world – people like state Sen. Arthur Gibb, Peg Garland, Gov. Deane Davis, and farmer Justin Brande -- to found and shape Vermont’s environmental movement.

He co-founded the Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy to help protect Shelburne Pond, and subsequently helped create an inventory of important natural areas throughout Vermont that focussed Vermont’s early conservation efforts. He was a founding member of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and through his teaching at UVM, he helped educate and inspire a generation of young environmental scientists.

However, he will probably be remembered longest for his work high on the flank of Vermont’s most iconic mountain: Camel’s Hump.

Hub Vogelmann loved the Green Mountains, especially the Hump, and that is where he conducted the botanical research in the 1960s and 1970s that helped document the devastation of red spruce high on the mountain’s sides… trees that had been healthy for decades were beginning to wither and die; young trees failed to thrive. Gaps began to appear in the high mountain forest.

The most likely culprit, he and others realized, was acid rain – a product of industrial stacks in the Midwest and gasoline engine exhaust from virtually everywhere.

The work that Hub Vogelmann and his students did on the mountain established a baseline that proved the forest was dying. Politicians from Washington and reporters from all over the country came to climb the mountain with the genial UVM botanist. The national furor that followed brought changes to the Clean Air Act that helped mitigate the damage done by acid rain. His research also laid the groundwork for Act 250’s ban on development above 2,500 feet.

But just as important was the scientific lesson that Hub helped establish – that environmental science had to focus, not on individual plants or trees or even habitats, but on whole systems, and that the actions of human beings had an effect on those natural systems. Therefore, humankind had to act to forge a solution.

In that he was, as Thomas Siccama, his first graduate student, has noted, the heir to Rachel Carson and Vermont environmentalist George Perkins Marsh.

Hub Vogelmann’s scientific rigor and his devotion to the Green Mountains combined to forge an environmental truth that will endure. As Vermont’s mountains today face new threats, we should remember this good man’s great example in using scientific facts to defend those mountains.

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