In spring 1992, members of the University of Rhode Island’s Natural Resource Issue Group, concerned over the scattered and incomplete nature of the state’s ecological information, invited ecological scientists from around the state to meet to discuss the establishment of a natural history survey in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Cooperative Extension Service then offered a summer graduate research fellowship to further assess the status of the state’s natural history knowledge and institutions.

In September 1992, thirty-nine individuals met and articulated a vision of an organization that would convene the state’s ecologists, natural historians, and decision-makers for the exchange of information and ideas and would be a neutral and widely trusted source of information that could be used for decisions affecting the state’s environment and its management. A steering committee was formed and developed a concept paper and mission statement for the Survey focusing on four area: communication, surveys & monitoring, education, and collections.

On April 2, 1993, what was, at the time, referred to as the Rhode Island Natural History Survey “project” hosted a conference at the Natural History Museum and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park, Providence, entitled, “What Do We Know About Rhode Island’s Ecological Resources?” Approximately 80 people attended, including then Governor Bruce Sundlun. The steering committee of the Natural History Survey project met through summer and fall 1993 to plan next steps. It formally named twenty-nine individuals to an Advisory Committee and printed the first edition of its directory of organizations, individuals, and publications pertaining to Rhode Island’s natural history. In the fall, it received a grant from the Lamb Family Foundation directed towards organizational development and publications.

On June 1, 1994, the Natural History Survey project was incorporated as a non-profit. The charter Board of Directors was: David Abedon, Peter August (President), Virginia Carpenter (Treasurer), Richard Enser (Vice-president), Ronald Flores, Howard Ginsberg, Mark Gould, Keith Killingbeck, Patrick Logan, Joanne Michaud, Douglass Morse, and Anthony Vecchio.

With the Lamb Foundation grant, the Survey hired Lisa Lofland Gould as its first Executive Director and published Martine Villalard-Bohnsack’s Illustrated Key to the Seaweeds in 1995 and the two volumes of the Biota of Rhode Island series, The Vascular Flora of Rhode Island, in 1998, and the Vertebrates of Rhode Island in 2001. Gould shared an office in the URI Cooperative Extension Education Center.

The Rhode Island Natural History Survey is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation but, since its founding, its housing has been provided by the University of Rhode Island, where it is an affiliated program of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. In 2001, the Natural History Survey moved into the newly built Coastal Institute at URI’s Kingston campus. In 2002, the Survey initiated the Ecological Inventory, Monitoring, and Stewardship (or “EIMS”) program to provide scientific support to land conservation groups. The Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy was the “anchor” client, and over the next two years, the Survey took on two full-time and one part-time scientist and a full-time data manager and The Nature Conservancy supported the Survey’s institutional growth.

Part of the Natural History Survey’s growth was to take over, in 2003, the management Rhode Island’s database of rare species and natural communities (or its “natural heritage” ), previously handled by The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

With the Survey having five and a half full-time equivalent employees, in 2004 Lisa Gould expressed her desire to step away from a directorship increasingly consumed by administrative tasks and re-focus on her botanical and invasive species work. In August, 2004, Gould took the title “senior scientist” and David Gregg was hired as the Natural History Survey’s second executive director.

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