We have been remiss in not previously noting in this space an important celebration that’s been underway since last fall. In October, the Harris Center for Conservation Education kicked off a year’s activities and commemorations that will culminate this October on the 50th anniversary of its founding.
Reaching a 50th year is impressive for any organization. For a nonprofit to reach that milestone while remaining true to and yet evolving its core mission, moving beyond reliance on initial funders and founders to attract broader public support, transitioning through inevitable leadership and staff change and energizing volunteers to support its work is even more so, and indeed rare.
The Harris Center sprang from the concern of Eleanor Briggs, now a Hancock resident, that conservation education was essential to address environmental problems. Briggs, who had delighted in childhood summers visiting her grandparents’ Hancock home surrounded by 200 acres of woods, was horrified to learn in 1966 that much of that land had been sold off to a developer, and she began buying it back. That very personal commitment to land preservation combined with her growing concern for environmental protection, and in 1970 the then-called Harris Foundation (taking its name from Briggs’s cat) began in the family home with a guiding principle that education was key to conservation. Public educational programs soon expanded into summer camps and school programs, including outdoor classrooms for high school students.
By the 1980s, the organization, having adopted its current name in 1975, evolved significantly by adding land protection to its work under the leadership of longtime Executive Director H. Meade Cadot. Now, the Harris Center has 23,000 acres under direct protection and has partnered with others to create what it calls a Super Sanctuary of 36,000 protected acres in a connected network stretching from the upper end of Stoddard south into Peterborough.
Its goal is to protect large contiguous blocks of habitat to preserve, in the center’s words, “room to roam.” The protected lands include rivers, lakes, mountains and wetlands and offer more than 20 acres of hiking trails. The sanctuary has been a critical component of area-wide efforts to maintain the natural beauty and wildlife of a region that depends so much on its mountains, rivers, forest and fields to draw residents and drive tourism.
In addition to its work in environmental education, wildlife research and land stewardship, the Harris Center has also engaged the public in citizen science.
Since its first Christmas Bird Count in 1973, the organization has enlisted volunteers to document vernal pools in the region, join salamander crossing brigades in springtime and help monitor local populations of endangered nighthawks, among other projects.
In 2007, the Harris Center appointed its first science director, and several years later it absorbed a small nonprofit that had previously marshaled 80 volunteers, including students, to check on the condition of 730 road-stream crossings in the Ashuelot valley watershed. Later, the center collaborated with some other groups to replace a Swanzey culvert that connected 10 miles of trout habitat upstream with 10 miles of habitat downstream, along the way organizing volunteers to plant vegetation along stream banks.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 concerns have interrupted the center’s normal operations and altered its anniversary plans. The Harris Center building remains closed to visitors, and planned lectures and events have either moved to remote platforms or been postponed or canceled.
But the organization continues its mission. Its trails and grounds remain open, offering access to nature and the outdoors during socially distanced times. The center also recently announced anniversary-year projects to track migrating creatures in Stoddard, to monitor turtle habitat restoration with ConVal Regional High School students and to track broad-winged hawks. And hearkening back to its conservation education roots, it is collaborating with other placed-based educators in northern New England to urge K-8 schools to incorporate more outdoor learning into plans for fully or partially reopening.
Following on the Harris Center’s many accomplishments since Briggs first gathered friends to organize 50 years ago will be a challenge. Yet its continued evolution and expansion speak to the determination of the organization and the many volunteers to keep building on its start. As Briggs herself recalled in an interview with The Sentinel at the time of the center’s 10th anniversary, “There’s still tons more to be done,” adding that “[t]he conservation cavalry will never be able to ride into their stables and rest.”
The Harris Center well deserves to celebrate a remarkable first 50 years. All should celebrate that its determination to do more continues.