Collins to launch The Rapidan Institute

Executive director of the Center for Natural Capital, Michael Collins has spent years studying the Rapidan River and devising ways to improve its long-term health.

When Michael Collins stood behind the old mill in Rapidan and looked at the Rapidan River on a recent cloudy afternoon, he saw more than rushing water and a fisherman up to his knees in the current. He saw a river that needs even more help that he has already given it.

Collins is executive director of the Center for Natural Capital in Orange, a non-profit center best known for StreamSweepers, a highly successful river-cleaning project begun in 2013. The center currently has two other projects: SoilKeepers, a “soil-based” landscape contracting business, and the Rapidan Wildlife Habitat Cooperative, an organization supporting wildlife habitat along the Rapidan.

Now Collins, 58, is poised to launch yet another enterprise: The Rapidan Institute, dedicated to “improving the resiliency of East Coast rivers,” starting with the Rapidan, Robinson and Hughes rivers. Through the institute, he intends to conduct applied research and reach out to landowners, students and others interested in learning about river ecology and conservation. He also plans to conduct demonstration projects showing how a river’s resiliency and overall health can be improved.

Working in collaboration with the owners of the former mill, a large and ungainly landmark that has sat empty for years, Collins is preparing to move his whole operation to renovated office space by the fall. The owners, Robert O’Brien and his son, Kevin, have added a second story to the mill’s office in anticipation of the arrival of Collins and his staff.

To help pay for the remainder of the interior renovation, the Center for Natural Capital is hosting a fund-raiser at the mill on Saturday, May 11, from 5 to 8 p.m. Tours of the mill will take place from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and a barbecue dinner will be served. Collins will on hand to answer questions about his plans for The Rapidan Institute and his use of the mill. Orange County historian Frank Walker also will be available to answer questions about the cultural history of the river.

The featured speaker at the fundraiser will be Fred Phillips of Fred Phillips Consulting, a landscape architecture firm with a special interest in community conservation and restoration projects. Collins said Phillips played a key role in bringing communities together to preserve and improve thousands of acres of land along the Colorado River. Though his firm is based in Arizona, Phillips has family ties to central Virginia, Collins noted.

A passion for rivers

Collins is passionate about rivers, especially the Rapidan, the Robinson and other rivers in Virginia.

Commenting on his new endeavor, he said, “What we’re doing is building on awareness we created with StreamSweepers. We learned that these rivers are not as resilient as they could be. What we mean by that is their ability to absorb extreme events—flooding or unnatural leaching of contaminants or pollutants from septic systems or treatment plants—is less than it might be.”

He compares a river’s overall health to a person’s. The way he explains it, a resilient river, just like a resilient person, can bounce back from a crisis much better than one that is compromised and vulnerable.

During an average flood, Collins said, a resilient river rises into its flood plain, where deep-rooted vegetation absorbs the excess water. Without sufficient vegetation and easy access to the flood plain, a river may rise precipitously due to heavy rains, flood nearby roads and neighborhoods and leave a big mess, if not a complete disaster, in its wake. Rapidan residents who live near the river on the Culpeper County side experienced that very situation last June.

A Charlottesville native, Collins graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in biochemistry and holds a master’s degree in environmental and land-use planning from the University of Virginia. He founded the Center for Natural Capital in 2006 with the goal of improving the quality of the region’s environment in a multitude of ways.

Collins is an authority on the Rapidan River, which he has studied closely for years.

“Much of the river,” in his assessment, “is in average to below-average health, and some parts are in average to above-average health,”

Citing federal government sources, he said the Rapidan, of all the major rivers in the Chesapeake Bay drainage area, has “one of the highest concentrations of sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.”

Because of that dubious distinction, Collins believes the Rapidan should be “ground zero for future Bay restoration programming.”

When he envisions The Rapidan Institute, he imagines landowners all along the Rapidan and its tributary, the Robinson, agreeing to develop and support the landscape and vegetation a resilient river depends on. To that end, he wants to take the successful methods used to improve the land along the Colorado River and put those methods to work in Orange County and beyond.

He said the combined length of the Rapidan and Robinson rivers is 100 miles. If The Rapidan Institute takes off the way he wants it to, he and his staff will work with landowners on both sides—200 miles—to develop a unique environmental conservation plan for each one of them. His decidedly ambitious goal is to create a plan that would satisfy each property owner and promote the resiliency of the river and the land alongside it.

“Social entrepreneurs”

Calling himself and his colleagues “social entrepreneurs,” Collins compares his non-profit business model to Habitat for Humanity.

He said SoilKeepers, the landscaping business, is profitable. The money made on that side of the enterprise is funneled into environmental research and river restoration projects.

His next endeavor will be a big one, if he can get the funding in place to move his business to Rapidan and launch The Rapidan Institute. His current fund-raising goal for finishing up a basic renovation of the mill office space is a relatively modest $15,000, and he said he already has received a $1,000 toward that amount.

But given the size of the mill, Collins is already thinking about other projects the structure could accommodate. He said he is thinking about the possibility of starting an “heirloom grain” business at the mill and making use of the mill’s silos. He also is considering whether he and his team could make use of the water pouring over the dam and develop hydro-electric power. Further, he would like to offer students, from kindergarten on up, the opportunity to visit the mill and learn about environmental science, among other topics.

After talking to Collins for a while, it becomes clear he is not just an environmentalist, land-use planner and entrepreneur. He is a visionary who fervently wants others to buy into his vision and make it happen.

Looking around the dusty, unlit, neglected office space inside the mill, he radiates his own light and energy.

“Is this part of Virginia willing to embrace the opportunity to create a river restoration project?” he asks. He hopes to get an affirmative answer on May 11.

The Center for Natural Capital will host a fundraiser at the mill in Rapidan on Saturday, May 11, with tours of the mill from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Dinner and a talk by Fred Phillips will follow at 6:30 p.m. at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Rapidan. Tickets cost $30 and reservations are requested. To order tickets, call 672-2542 or go to

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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