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‘Certain Places Have a Magic’

Nature Center CEO Nathan Smallwood, left, walks one of the center’s trails with Luke Allison, KNC’s landscape coordinator. © 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Kalamazoo Nature Center has been soothing souls for 60 years

It’s an open invitation from Nathan Smallwood, CEO of the Kalamazoo Nature Center: “I urge you to come out in this challenging time. Walk the trails. I promise you will feel better.”

It’s a simple promise grounded in science. There’s abundant evidence that being in nature is restorative. Necessary even. Humans are part of nature, and our well-being depends on the health of the environment, which was one the founding tenets of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, which observes its 60th anniversary this month.

“Certain places have a magic that draws people to them” begins the Kalamazoo Nature Center story in Glimpsing the Whole (Beech Leaf Press, 1995), a retrospective book about the center by Renee Kivikko, Constance Ferguson and Monica Evans.

That magic is evident in Cooper’s Glen, a wooded, rolling countryside five miles north of Kalamazoo that was named for James Fenimore Cooper, a prolific 19th-century American author of historical fiction, perhaps best-known for The Last of the Mohicans and whose novel Oak Openings (1848) is set on a wooded prairie in Kalamazoo during the War of 1812.

H. Lewis Batts Jr. was a frequent visitor to Cooper’s Glen in the 1950s. Originally from Macon, Georgia, Batts came to Kalamazoo as a teen. His early interest in birds led to an academic career teaching ecology and ornithology at Kalamazoo College. He often met Western Michigan University professor of biology Dr. Harriette Bartoo and their respective students in the glen.

The threat of a gravel mining operation and commercialism, along with the love both professors shared for the rolling hills, prairies and abundant plant and animal life of the glen, led them to action. They formed community partnerships with natural history, legal, fundraising and business experts to purchase the property and create an outdoor environmental education center. The Kalamazoo Nature Center was incorporated on Oct. 31, 1960, and Batts was appointed executive director.

An uncharted path

The center’s leadership faced unchartered territory, since nature centers were new at that time, but the founders knew the facilities and programs they envisioned would live on well into the future by incorporating concepts of diversity, financial stability and sustainability. Research, education and stewardship were foundational and remain so today.

From the start, the founders’ vision was to establish a center that developed, especially in children, an understanding of and appreciation for natural resources for the long-term benefit of all people. For us to appreciate the natural world of which we are a part, the center’s programs were — and to this day are — designed to be interactive and accessible to all, serving people of every age, race, ability, education level and economic status.

Batts retired in 1988, after nearly 30 years of leading the nonprofit institution. He was succeeded by Willard (Bill) Rose, who retired in 2018, after a nearly 30-year career marked by the center’s growth and expansion. Under Rose’s leadership, land holdings of the KNC doubled, to nearly 1,200 acres. Also, with the multi-million-dollar support of an anonymous donor, the center acquired the Heronwood Field Station, in Alamo Township, which includes 70 acres of woodlands and a 5,000-square-foot building that is now a classroom and laboratory space.

This acquisition allowed expansion of programming to target populations that historically did not access nature-based learning. For example, the Nature Center partnered with the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency’s Education for Employment program to develop a curriculum on conservation biology for high school students. The field station has also been used for college classes, middle school summer programs, adult Citizen Science programs and endangered butterfly propagation work.

In addition, the center’s Nature’s Way Preschool, established under Batts (among the three earliest nature-based preschools in the country) and located off Oakland Drive, was rebuilt to double its capacity. The Stryker Nature Preserve — 30 acres of protected woodland on which the preschool sits — abuts Portage Creek and includes the Carver House, a mid-20th-century house designed by the late local architect Norman F. Carver that is used for programming and rentals.

“If Lew (Batts) was the visionary founder, Bill (Rose) was the one to expand it to a scale that helped set the standard for premier nature centers,” says Smallwood, the center’s CEO since two years ago.

Reflecting on his time leading the center, Rose says, “I do feel grateful for having had the opportunity to help the organization grow and to serve the mission. Yes, there was considerable expansion in terms of land acquisition and high-quality services and programming, but — and I want to emphasize this — it was the dedicated staff, volunteers and board who carried that same passion and commitment to the mission that made our successes possible.”

Tallgrass prairie and savannas were extensive and complex ecological features native to southwestern Michigan before European settlers began claiming and transforming them for plowing and animal grazing in the early 1800s. Restoration initiatives started during Rose’s tenure remain integral to the center’s land-management strategies. “Last week I biked the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail to the (Willard Rose Tallgrass) Prairie,” Rose said in a July interview. “All my favorite flowers were in bloom: purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and orange butterfly weed. I’m so grateful to have this in our community.”

The work behind the scenes

Leaders understood early on the need for relatively undisturbed habitats for ecosystem support and human exploration and enjoyment, so most of the land under the Nature Center’s stewardship is undeveloped. Still, there is considerable maintenance that goes on behind the scenes, most of which was put on hold when the pandemic hit in March.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the center closed its facilities, and its team of more than 300 volunteers had to be furloughed. Many of them normally help maintain trails by planting flowers and pulling invasive species such as garlic mustard.

“Our approximately 15 miles of trails were left to go wild early in the pandemic,” says Luke Allison, the landscape coordinator responsible for the center’s main campus grounds and equipment, as he gently coaxes a tiny, bright-green grasshopper-like creature from his left forearm to the top of the picnic table where we are sitting, masked and 6 feet apart.

Grading and leveling are required to reduce erosion and, on some trails, to maintain wheelchair accessibility. Downed trees and branches that obstruct pathways require removal. Poison ivy must be controlled.

Midsummer, Allison was focusing on the Nature Center’s safety and sanitation as the center gradually and partially reopened to young day campers and the general public. “I thrive on working outside,” he says. “What I love most about it is the land.

Nature doesn’t care who you are, if you’re sick or healthy, what gender you are. Flowers still bloom, birds still chirp. It’s very humbling.”

The center’s summer camp director, Tanequa Hampton, also thrives on being outside, especially with children and teens. Hampton started her job at the Nature Center shortly before the 2019 summer camp season, so she was relatively new to the position when COVID-19 canceled camp for approximately 1,000 young people for the first time since camps began there, in 1961. She says the loss of the camps had profound unseen effects, taking away social and learning opportunities for young people.

Not only is camp “a place to find new friends, a place to be (oneself), a place of belonging,” it is a place to reinforce what children and teens learn elsewhere or not at all, says Hampton, a former camp counselor at Pretty Lake Vacation Camp.

“In the outside world, we have to sit down, be proper, follow directions,” she says. “Here, of course, we have boundaries and we manage risk, but we also help campers fine-tune soft skills: social and self-awareness, responsible decision making, relationship building. These are essential for making our way through the world. We learn how we impact others, how we impact the land. Here, we connect children with nature.”

Hampton says it’s common for campers to return later as camp counselors. They return to give back, she says. “The skills you learn here are passed on to others. I love this work. We keep kids safe, engaged and learning. What other job can you go to, be outside and be a kid all day?”

Camp resumed in July with scaled-back programming, shorter days and fewer campers, after considerable internal planning and policy guidance from the American Camp Association. The hardest part, Hampton says, was having to tell many counselors hired for the camp season that they no longer had jobs.

Change and adaptation

This passage about the Nature Center from Glimpsing the Whole seems especially prescient: “As times change, the Center changes, and so do its programs, staff and sources of funding. The ability to adapt to changing surroundings is the hallmark of a successful organism and of a successful organization. It is important, however, to manage change, to be certain that it is driven by vision and not just by available funding.”

It’s a passage that also indicates the challenges the center’s CEO, its board and its staff face. Smallwood is at the helm during a period of unprecedented social change and crises: the pandemic, a fractured economy, increasingly dire impacts of climate change, and widespread awareness of the inequities inherent in our society.

Yet he’s all in. “We know we have to reprioritize and refocus on what we want to become in the context of rapidly changing circumstances,” he says. “What we are creating is something I’m really excited about. I think rebuilding our programs and the ways we are becoming sustainable will set a standard in the community.”

Sustainability is one of two key themes of the center’s emerging strategic plan, which was in the process of being developed during the early part of the pandemic, when the center was closed to the public. That process was restarted in late summer via video meetings.

Reducing carbon emissions is a priority, Smallwood says. “The daunting part is there is no blueprint. We want to set standards for other nature centers and nonprofit organizations,” he says, noting that the center’s efforts go beyond such physical improvements as renovating the 1960s-era Visitor Center to be more energy-efficient.

“DeLano Farms offers a farm internship program,” Smallwood says. “We’re expanding our subscriber-based food-share program that currently generates hundreds of pounds of organic produce, using regenerative practices focused on healthy soil.

“Another program, Fair Food Matters, engages elementary students in growing food. These are ways to model and practice resilience and adaptation.

“Many know the center for its summer camp and trails, but the center’s $3 million operation also conducts leading research and conservation activities that most nature centers don’t do.

“There are also KNC properties along Lake Michigan and up north that have been set aside as preserves. We know habitat preservation is crucial for survival of animal and plant species and our own.”

An eye on equity

The other key theme of the center’s emerging strategic plan is equity, inclusion and diversity. “My educational training was ecology before it was business,” Smallwood says. “We know ecosystem survival depends on diversity. It’s not a big jump to apply that to human systems. It’s our best path to survive and grow.”

There’s a connection between the climate crisis and racism and environmental justice, he says. “Structural and institutional barriers in nature centers and environmental sciences in our country have made it hard for indigenous and other people of color to be part of those movements, but the truth is they have always been invested in preserving the natural world, just not within our dominant culture’s model. That model had an unintentional arrogance — ‘If only you had my education and experience, you would share my values’ — when, in fact, matters of the environment affect us all.”

Two incidents in May bolstered the center’s determination to begin addressing matters of equity, diversity and inclusion: first, the incident in New York City’s Central Park between Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog, and Black birder Christian Cooper and, second, the death of George Floyd, an African American, after a white police officer in Minneapolis put a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. That officer has been charged with second-degree murder, and three other Minneapolis police officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

“What happened in Central Park could have happened at the Kalamazoo Nature Center,” Smallwood says. “We have not made our institution as safe as we need to. It’s our job to change that, and it’s an awesome responsibility.

“Our equity statement speaks to the work ahead. It wasn’t created top down but rather emerged from among a team of folks committed to vulnerability, honesty and trust. We want to be held accountable by the community at large. We are advocates of building relationships between humans and nature, but we have to understand the dynamic under which we are trying to pursue our mission.” (see sidebar at right)

That mission is to inspire people to care for the environment by providing experiences that lead them to understand their connection to the natural world.

So go out and walk the trails. There’s solace in knowing we are part of nature.

Donna McClurkan

Donna is a Kalamazoo-based freelance writer and climate activist.

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