KALAMAZOO — The public’s view of the Kalamazoo Nature Center is one of beautifully preserved nature trails, numerous wildlife habitats, and a safe haven within the urban areas surrounding it.
But behind the scenes, the nonprofit focuses strategically on environmental education for children and adults and working with businesses and organizations to create a sustainable and collaborative approach to their natural surroundings.
“It’s so big and so multi-faceted and most people don’t realize all of the different entities they work with,” said Shawn Hagen, chef and owner of Bravo Restaurant and a KNC board member. “They think of the interpretive center in town, but it’s much more than that.”
President and CEO Bill Rose said the areas of focus are part of an ongoing and evolving strategic plan for the organization.
“We really look at what are the most important things to the community and what does the community need,” said Rose, who retires on April 30 after more than 29 years with the KNC.
To that end, the organization has continued to improve upon the camp opportunities for children and teenagers, which were first offered shortly after the facility opened in 1960. In 2008 the Nature Center introduced its “No Child Left Inside” initiative, one of 72 throughout the United States, as a full-court press in collaboration with numerous community partners to get children into the outdoors.
Rose said his organization’s nature-based camps are designed to be progressive programs for pre-K to teenage students. Some youths who participated at earlier ages come back as junior or senior camp counselors and he frequently hears from adults who share memories of their time at a Nature Center camp.
These Nature Center alumni include people who came through the camp programs as children who have gone on to earn doctorates in environmental fields. One of them is a retiring professor of ecology and biology at a small university in Georgia.
Others, meanwhile, have put their money into environmental preservation.
“There is an oral surgeon in the Detroit area who bought 40 acres so he could have his office in the middle of a natural area and he’s put big windows in each suite that look out over nature,” Rose said. “He’s put nature trails throughout and even started hosting environmental programs on the property.”
Several years ago Jon Stryker, founder of the Arcus Foundation and a grandson of the Stryker Corp. founder, donated a 22-acre parcel of land that once belonged to KNC founder Lewis Batts and his wife Jean. Stryker, a former KNC board member, purchased the property more than 15 years ago.
Rose said that property, accessible off of Angling Road, is now a nature preserve that will open this summer for public use. Residents living near the area and representatives from 20 different community nonprofits participated in strategic planning sessions to come up with ideas about the property’s best use.
“We started generating ideas and thoughts and what we came up with was nature, art and mindfulness,” Rose said. “We want to see that property continue to be protected. People from all over the area wanted it protected.”
The children of a couple who were longtime supporters of the Nature Center donated their parents’ home and the 70 acres surrounding it because they knew their parents would have wanted it preserved. That space now houses the Nature Center’s Heronwood Field Station, which offers the only conservation/biology education for employment program in Michigan for high school students.
KNC also offers “Annie’s Big Nature Lesson,” an initiative aimed at elementary-age students and modeled after a similar program that first began at nature centers in the Lansing area.
“We became aware of the program through a donor there who also is one of our donors,” Rose said. “We decided to move ahead with it and we’ve been raising money ever since.
“We teach teachers and run workshops on how to teach in the out of doors. After they go through the training, they sign up for a weeklong program here.”
A minimum of two teachers from one building team teach and bring two classes in simultaneously. They are charged with coming up with an idea and design for a project that they take back to their classrooms.
“It’s the idea of giving back and getting your hands dirty,” Rose said.
The concept also expanded about 15 years ago to include businesses and governmental agencies in the Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.
Borrowing the model from the Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the group is facilitated by the Nature Center and run by a board made up of area business leaders and owners who decide what projects they want to be involved in.
“It’s all about the social connection businesses should have to their communities,” Rose said. “There’s a recognition that while for-profits exist to make a profit, they also have to look at financial sustainability.”
Because of the specialized knowledge and expertise the Nature Center has with the outdoors and nature research, its staff has worked with companies such as Pfizer Corp. to determine how they can make a positive impact with employees who are interested in nature and the environment. Many of them want to know what they can do to protect habitats on the property they own, Rose said.
Efforts at Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Portage include nest box monitoring.
Rose said his staff also works with the owners of several area golf courses on issues such as water use reduction and the creation of more natural rough areas.
“We also work with the Department of Defense, which is required to pay attention to the natural values of their property,” Rose said. “We work with Fort Custer on ecological monitoring and restoration work, and this summer we’ll be doing a Mississaugua rattlesnake inventory.
“We do a lot of work up at Camp Grayling with invasive species.”
Closer to home the Nature Center has partnered with the Kalamazoo County Parks department to put part of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail through its property. It’s also worked with Bronson Methodist Hospital to meet one of its sustainability goals to reduce the amount of traffic in the city’s downtown area.
The Nature Center also has reclaimed contaminated pieces of land and turned it into usable space and is working to use Portage Creek to form a connection between Kalamazoo and Portage.
“We worked on the development of 4-acre urban nature park on East Michigan Avenue,” Rose said. “That property used to be a brownfield site and it was contaminated. It’s a narrow parcel, but very long. We have a deck and a bridge over the creek and to the south a whole wetland area has been restored.”
These initiatives add value to the community, Hagen said.
“The urban renewal makes it a healthier environment for all of us and is a big focus,” he said.
While much of this work with community partners, businesses and government may be a revelation to those who frequent the Nature Center, Rose said these efforts have been going on for a long time. He said it’s all part of an overall plan to be strategic and relevant.
“Because of the way this organization was launched, we’ve always had a little bit of a bigger prominence in the community than nature centers around the country,” Rose said. “We are always trying to be a relevant and important part of the community.”