The new executive director of the North Branch Nature Center grew up in Vermont and that’s where she fell in love with the natural world and being outdoors, but Naomi Heindel was working at the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming when she first heard about the nature center she now leads.
“North Branch Nature Center’s reputation precedes it,” Heindel said. “It is well known and well loved here in Vermont, but I learned about it in Wyoming. My parents kept telling me that it was great, that they had taken programs here and it was fantastic.”
Heindel heard about the nature center from others, as well, including a local staff member with connections to the Teton Science Schools.
“When you work in this field, you know what the cream-of-the-crop programs are, and while North Branch is small, it is one of them,” she said.
Heindel’s parents — who still live in the North Ferrisburgh house she grew up in — are natural scientists who love being outdoors, so she grew up on hiking, skiing, canoeing and camping, talks about the natural world, and extended stretches outdoors. In high school, her passion flourished.
‘Doing Science Outside and Learning Outside’
“I went to the Vermont Common School in South Burlington, and that is where I really learned this education — doing science outside and learning outside. I had teachers who took me all over Vermont and used it as our classroom.” She spent summers paddling in New England, Quebec, and Labrador, thriving on long stretches outdoors and becoming a trip leader.
From Vermont Common School, she majored in geology at Dartmouth College, and it was with the Dartmouth geology department that she made her first trip to the Tetons, where years later she would work.
After Dartmouth and working and teaching in Yosemite National Park — where she met her future husband, Jordan Nobler — she attended the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to broaden her knowledge of environmental and social-ecological topics. Then it was back out west for seven years at the Teton Science Schools, with her most recent job there being head of field education.
As beautiful as the Tetons are, Heindel and Nobler both loved Vermont and wanted to move here to set down roots. Years of living in graduate student housing and staff housing no longer cut it. North Branch provided the opportunity they were looking for, with Heindel applying for the executive director position last fall, starting the job this spring, and the couple buying a house in Worcester this summer. Nobler works remotely, so he has kept his position as director of assets and operations at the Teton Science Schools.
Looking to the Nature Center’s Future
When asked where she wants to take the nature center, Heindel emphasized the great variety of programs and the center’s important role in the community, and by praising her predecessor, Chip Darmstadt, and the center’s staff for building it to where it is today.
She said she wants to connect more with teens, as well as to better serve more demographic groups. The recently expanded main building allows for new types of programs and rentals; the center has started hosting weddings. She can picture having concerts on the site and hosting bike rides. Heindel wants the center to address intersections between humans and the natural world and to offer some “issues-based programming and issues-based trips.”
“For example, I have done a lot of traveling, paddling, and researching in northern Quebec. I have studied and led trips based on the social-ecological issues of resource extraction and forest use on First Nations land … thinking about the intersection of natural resources and the natural world and people,” she said, adding that conversation soon leads to considering economics, history, and politics. “Wouldn’t it be neat to take folks out to the western U.S. and talk about fire, climate change, and water issues?”
“If we draw a line too narrowly on a nature center and limit it to plants and animals, that’s not quite enough. For me, the next level out is the oh-so-exciting abiotic parts of the world — the water, the fire, the ice, the snow, the wind, the climate — and from there pretty quickly you get to people, the way we interact with those and some complicated, sometimes contentious environmental issues. That’s what really drives me and what I hope I can bring here.”
“My hope is this is my last job,” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for: a place to be for a long time, for my kids to grow up, for me to learn, and to be part of both the organization and the community.”