LENOX -- For many Berkshire outdoor enthusiasts, he has been Mr. Wildlife, a naturalist to the manor born.
After nearly three decades of carefully tending and nurturing Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries -- notably Pleasant Valley on West Mountain Road and Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield -- Sanctuary Director Rene Laubach is stepping down to pursue his own expeditions and adventures.
Laubach said he’s most proud of supervising an extensive renovation and trail expansion at the 1,300-acre Pleasant Valley property in 1997, the acquisition of a third Mass Audubon sanctuary in the Berkshires, Lime Kiln Farm in Sheffield, and most recently the restoration of Sackett Brook at Canoe Meadows.
With typical modesty, the unassuming director, who just turned 66, emphasized that "all those things go way beyond me, through the efforts of a lot of people, volunteers and staff."
He decided to retire "just because I thought it was time to move on, and have more freedom to pursue some of my avocations. I’m physically fit enough to continue, but after doing it for almost 30 years, I’m ready to have someone else have a try at it."
At the top of his unfulfilled wish list, Laubach said during a recent conversation at his Pleasant Valley office, was the creation of a modern, universally accessible visitors center there. "Frankly, it came down to a funding issue," he explained. The projected cost exceeds $1 million.
"We never thought we could raise that kind of money here," he pointed out. "That’s, by far, my biggest regret of any consequence. Otherwise, we’ve done a lot of good things here."
Mass Audubon, a private nonprofit, operates Pleasant Valley and Canoe Meadows on a $300,000 annual budget through events, memberships (currently $32 as a half-price special) and, for nonmembers, a modest $5 admission fee ($3 for seniors and children). Admission is free to all Lenox residents; likewise, Canoe Meadows is free to Pittsfielders.
Annual income of $86,000 from a $2 million endowment is restricted to support operating costs.
"There is a gap every year," Laubach said. "It’s difficult to raise enough funds to keep this place operating at the level we’d like to. We have been able to, but it’s been a struggle." Any budget gap is closed with backup from the statewide organization based in Lincoln.
"Fundraising is something, I have to admit, that wears on you," he commented. "It’s a tough thing to do, some people are very good at it, others less so. I’m a naturalist and a pretty decent administrator, but I have to admit, I found major fundraising to be the biggest challenge here."
His successor, chosen but not yet publicly identified, has a background that includes development. Though he was asked, Laubach chose not to participate in the selection process.
But, he told The Eagle, he would suggest "someone who connects well with people of various ages and walks of life, has a love for nature and a background in biology or natural history, someone who can excite people about our mission, and that leads to fundraising, which has become a more important part of this job over the years."
"Hopefully," he added, "it will be somebody who can connect with the community, increase the support, raise the profile and maybe, I hope, end up with a visitors center."
The southeastern Michigan native, bit by the wildlife bug as a 3- and 4-year-old thanks to walks in the woods with his grandfather and then by camping, canoeing and hiking as a Boy Scout, will be feted during a sendoff at the Lenox sanctuary, two days before his official retirement date on May 31.
"I was 12 when I decided I wanted to do something connected with the outdoors and wildlife," Laubach recalled. His primary interests involve winged creatures -- birds, bats and butterflies.
Laubach has augmented Pleasant Valley’s wide-ranging educational programs for adults and young people, including the day camp, many started by a predecessor, Alvah Sanborn, the director for 27 years. Sanborn also created the sanctuary’s school outreach program, now led by staffer Gayle Tardif-Raser.
Looking ahead to life after Mass Audubon, Laubach and his wife are eagerly anticipating a nine-day group trek in August to the 19,300-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "They told us to expect temperatures as low as zero to 15 below at night at that elevation," he said.
They will continue to live in Becket, their home for 29 years, and travel to favorite destinations such as the American Southwest.
Laubach will also complete a revision to his "Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires" book, one of seven he has written. "I’ve had 50 hikes to do all over again," he noted, "because things change, you never know until you do it."
He emphasized how much he’ll miss the volunteers, staffers and the folks who come through the sanctuaries.
But, as he put it: "I love nature and I love telling people about it and sharing my excitement about it. What I’m going to be doing after retirement is all the fun parts of the job, the things I got into the field for. But it sure will be a switch, since I’ve spent almost half my life here. There’s a lot I love about these properties, they’re like home."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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Career highlights of Mass Audubon Berkshire Sanctuaries Director Rene Laubach:
1971: Obtains wildlife biology degree from Michigan State University; hired as research assistant at Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
1974: Earns master’s degree in museum science from Texas Tech University; marries Christyna Laubach (who remains head of the science department at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School). Begins stint as director of education and acting director at the Des Moines Center of Science and Industry (now the Iowa Science Center.)
1983: Appointed director of the Dartmouth (Mass.) Children’s Museum.
1985: Hired from a field of 30 as sanctuary director for Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Sanctuaries. During his first visit to Pleasant Valley in late November with a foot of snow on the ground, abandoned a hike to the Lenox Mountain summit because he was wearing leather street shoes.
1990: Supervised acquisition of third Mass Audubon Berkshire property, Mount Everett Wildlife Sanctuary in Sheffield; renamed Lime Kiln Farm when trails opened to the public in 2007.
1997: Under his leadership, GE’s Elfun Society renovates Pleasant Valley’s barn, museum education center, builds a maintenance center, installs 300 bluebird nest boxes in a one-day, 275-volunteer marathon supervised by Dennis Arsenau. Laubach calls it "a monumental happening, a really big deal."
2010: Upgrades at Pleasant Valley, founded by the Lenox Garden Club in 1929 on two former farms and donated to Mass Audubon in 1950, include expansion to 1,300 acres from the original 600, the wheelchair-accessible All Persons Trail and its Sensory Trail Overlay, with interpretive material at 11 stations.
May 15, 2014: Public ceremony at 10:30 a.m. to celebrate Sackett Brook restoration at Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield, previously enhanced by Community Gardens program and a pavilion with picnic tables.
May 21, 2014: Laubach’s successor, soon to be publicly identified, slated to begin work.
May 29, 2014: Laubach’s tenure is celebrated during a special event at Pleasant Valley, two days before his retirement date.