New Kalamazoo Nature Center CEO says he’s made a career out of his passions

Nathan Smallwood was "raised by wolves," he says. 

Now he hopes to be accepted as the head of a new pack.

Smallwood became the Kalamazoo Nature Center's new CEO. He replaces Bill Rose, who retired after over 28 years in the position. Rose had followed H. Lewis Batts, Jr., who founded the KNC in 1960 and served as executive director until 1989.

In the 1950s, Batts lead an effort to purchase the area called Cooper's Glen, which was threatened by nearby gravel pit mining and commercialism. The rolling hills, oak and maple forest and prairie clearings were beloved by nature-loving Kalamazoo residents going back to a time when Kalamazoo was new. James Fenimore Cooper, of "Last of the Mohicans" fame, wrote "The Oak Openings," inspired by his 1840s visits to the "oak openings" (small prairies surrounded by oaks) of the glen with his name.

In recent decades, the Kalamazoo Nature Center has kept growing. The Nature Center now oversees 1,100 acres of countryside north of Kalamazoo. Its Nature's Way Preschool has grown from a one-room cabin to a facility that can educate 128 students. An 1800's historical homestead has become DeLano Farms, an educational working farm. Among other recent projects, the KNC carved out a bit of nature in downtown with the Urban Nature Park, and is readying the Stryker Nature Preserve for the public.

Smallwood is an Ohio native, the former head of the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee (2011-2016) and of Centerville, Indiana's Cope Environmental Center (2017-April, 2018). He's also, to put it bluntly, an outsider to the Kalamazoo community, coming to lead the nonprofit that holds a special place the heart of many here. His selection stirred up controversy -- primarily over how Smallwood was selected. 

Four KNC trustees resigned in protest over the selection process -- the trustees were offered Smallwood as the only candidate, selected out of a pool of unknown others. The trustees cannot speak publicly thanks to nondisclosure agreements, but trustee Becki Fulgoni, who was on the selection committee and not part of the walk-out, told MLive, "The idea of the level of equity or diversity or inclusion was something that came up from the four (trustees)." 

Smallwood knows the "importance of first impressions," he says. He wants locals to know that he understands that the Kalamazoo Nature Center is a big, beloved part of the community's history and present, and he hopes to make the nonprofit stronger for the future.

"We look back on those people who had the foresight to provide something we have today, and it's not lost on me that that's part of my responsibility," Smallwood says. His new job is not one of just "thinking just about this year's budget and numbers, but of the legacy to leave for the community."

Childhood in the woods

"I like to say I was raised by wolves, in the woods," Smallwood says of his family life. He was born in 1965, the youngest of seven boys. "The whole family spent a lot of time in the woods, so I developed that kind of nature ethic and interest in a very young age." An older brother studied ornithology at the University of Miami, and Smallwood, at age 10, "effectively took the course with him," developing a love for birdwatching.

He grew up in southwest Ohio, on the "glaciated divide," the landscape that ends flat Ohio and begins the rolling hills of Kentucky. "That makes it interesting geologically and ecologically.... It's north-meet-south in terms of ecosystems. It's a very rich area."

He adds with a grin, "people tell me I have a strong southern accent, which are fighting words for someone from Ohio."

Making a career out of his passions

He went to college at Dartmouth, New Hampshire, earned a BA in biology and music. "Then I struck out to Hollywood to pursue my music dream." Hoping to make a life as a rock guitarist, he went to the Musicians Institute, a performing arts school, worked there, and eventually fell into a life of nonprofit management.

Smallwood went to graduate school at Yale, "and to the dismay of the PhD.s," it was the Yale School of Management, where he earned an MBA that had "a strong nonprofit aspect." 

His life has led to a resume "with a lot of interesting turns," and a Linkedin profile that shows work in marketing and strategic planning for arts, and later, nature, nonprofits.

"If there's a common thread it's been my good fortune or tenacity in making a career out of my passions."

Seeing the forest and the trees

Smallwood confesses that he often stares at the activity around Nature Center bird feeders outside of his office window during meetings. 

What appeals to him about the woods shading those feeders?

"For me, there's a connection with the natural heritage that's really exciting. So when I see a huge oak tree I'm thinking, 'Wow, what has happened in the 400 years that this giant has stood in this spot?' That connection to the natural world and the history of an area is always fascinating. And that includes the human history of the area, too. I wonder, how many Native Americans knew this very tree.... I lived in an area that had not preserved a lot of that heritage, so necessarily I've developed a conservation ethic," he says.

"Conservation has now moved toward restoration, so there are managed habitats -- virtually anything is a managed habitat anymore, and while I'm for conserving these spaces, I'm passionate about restoration. We're sitting on the edge of a beech/maple forest that's been preserved, but it also had to be restored -- it'd been overrun by invasives. The idea of reclaiming the history of a natural area is exciting to me."

First impressions of the Nature Center

Smallwood was head of the Schlitz Audubon in Milwaukee when he came to Kalamazoo for a conference, first visited the Kalamazoo Nature Center and "was really blown away. Funny how life comes around; I couldn't imagine that I'd be here someday." 

It's "a leader in this sector. It's part of a small group of nature centers that set the trend in this industry," he says. He places the KNC in the top "five or six" nature centers of its type in the country. And every one of them is in a market larger than Kalamazoo.... 

"Now that doesn't mean we're rolling over in money, it means that we have developed programs and developed a revenue model and support system alongside of that in a sustainable way."

Smallwood wants to continue the KNC's conservation-focused growth. He notes that as Kalamazoo has grown, the KNC should continue with projects like the Urban Nature Park and Stryker Nature Preserve, to put "the environment and issues of conservation in your backyard, and not (only at) a preserve off on the edge of town."

Nathan Smallwood, the new Kalamazoo Nature Center CEO. Photo by Mark Wedel.Smallwood's impression of Kalamazoo

"My other passion in life is the arts, music in particular," so Kalamazoo suits him. "This town has more nature and music than just about anywhere. I've only been here a few weeks, and I'm drinking from the proverbial firehose, just even on the job. In the evenings I'm pretty tired out, yet there are all these other things distracting me every day I've been here," he says.

"Like a lot of Midwestern cities, it's had its challenges as well. My new home here, it feels like it's gone through a lot of planning, a lot of effort to make this a great place to live and work."

Reaching out

Students living in Kalamazoo neighborhoods like Edison or the Northside have likely visited the KNC on school field trips or maybe enrolled in the Nature Center Camp program -- but how would Smallwood keep them connected to the Center, and nature in general?

How do you reach out to children and families, who're living in urban environments, who see nature as a tree across the street?

In Milwaukee, "we serviced neighborhoods and schools that are a mile away from Lake Michigan, who'd never seen it (the lake)," he says.  

"And a big part of it is to bring diversity and inclusion into the organization because there are perspectives.

"So, for me, nature was my safe haven where I would escape the tyranny of my older brothers or whatever it was. For people in different positions, it might be a scary place, and it was eye-opening for me to see inner-city kids a little hesitant and asking a lot of questions before going onto a trail. So I think there's no substitute for the hard work of understanding each other's perspectives and meeting people where they are," he says. 

"I can wonder why an inner-city Hispanic person isn't interested in going bird watching with me, or I can take the time to understand what their life is about and how our mission intersects that, and make sure to provide programs that will remove barriers.... Are there things that we're doing that we're not even aware of, that are off-putting or scary or just alien to people who live so close to us and yet so far away?"

He notes, "we're an environmental organization, but we're a social organization, too." 

Smallwood lists ways to reach out to the community, including bilingual programs, transportation and working to bring more greenspace into the city. "A lot of it is serving people where they live."
The Kalamazoo Nature Center should "meet people where they are.... The same is true with technology. For many years, issues of technology have been antithetical to the environmental movement. But the fact is, people are on their devices." 

He lists possibilities like guided trail maps that people can follow along on their devices, or nest cams. "These aren't substitutes for an authentic natural experience, but you have to meet people where they are," he says.

"We're not in the entertainment business, but we need to have compelling content in  a world that has a lot of competition."

Any other plans, in general?

"This is a really privileged post, because (the KNC) is already a leader in the sector. A number of the things that I wanted to advance here... issues of inclusion and engagement of a broader swath of our service area. And that is everything from programmatic to even being involved in the envisioning and care of properties." 

Smallwood has just starting strategic planning with Nature Center staff, so he has no big reveals yet. He'd like to first "understand what the community needs are.... But it is exciting that we have some possibilities there," he says. 

"We have a fair amount of acreage for a nature center for a market this size, so we can do things at a scale larger than a small demonstration, we can actually be involved in habitat restorations of scale that are doing more than (simply) demonstrating, they're actually providing habitat." 

"That's an area I've been interested and involved in, whether it's just acquiring property or in general working with land conservation organizations and trusts, in the envisioning of larger greenways and of conservation of scale."

On the walk-out of the trustees

Was Smallwood was the only candidate they saw, out of an unknown number of others, and they wanted more choices?

"Right," he says. "And, from my seat, I was not privy to the inner workings of the search. What I can say is, I was familiar with the search consultants who were very highly regarded in our sector, and -- I can't comment" on the trustees' discussions, since he wasn't at their meetings. 

"What I can say is, from my perspective, I've been involved in a few national searches, successfully so, and (for his current position at the Nature Center) I met more people and sat down and spent more time than in any interview process I've been through."

But the four trustees quit the board over the process. "I'm sorry that was the case." All he can do is, Smallwood says, "is do what I can to persuade our constituencies and everybody that I'm open for business and I'm open for transparent processes, diversity, and inclusion here. I'd ask you to judge me by the track record I hope to set in those areas." 

Change and passion

"Change is hard," he says. "I follow a very strong leader who had a very long tenure, who followed someone else who was a strong leader with a long tenure, and the fact is the kind of change that the organization is going through by changing its leadership is not something that is done frequently.

"Change brings some differences in opinion, and places like this attract people of passion. So I guess what I would say is, that I hope it remains a place that people feel very passionate about."

He continues, "It's a wonderful place as it is, so I'm not coming in to change things immediately. I'm coming in to appreciate what's here, and to identify a few key areas in our strategic plan that will really focus on setting a national standard."

A joke he's been telling people is, "Each of my predecessors had about 30-year tenures, and I'm not sure I'll be working into my 80s." But Smallwood hopes "to position this place in the very long term, the way that my predecessors had.

"I'm still pinching myself.... It's too early for me to predict where we'll go next, but my staff is already loading me up with lots of exciting ideas."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. He has vivid memories of the Nature Center, of countless grade school field trips, of delivering an injured baby possum to its wildlife specialists, to biking the surrounding forest hills. His website can be found here.