Getting People Outside
Connecting with Acterra ED Michael Closson
by Beth Slatkin on November 28, 2012
In a previous era, Michael Closson might have been a pioneer outdoorsman in the Sierra Nevada. Now he’s simply an avid hiker – and a passionate advocate for the environment. When he’s not hiking, Michael channels his passion into his work as Executive Director of Acterra, a South Bay nonprofit that provides people with tangible, hands-on activities they can do to improve the planet.
BN: Did you grow up in the Bay Area?
MC: No, I grew up in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. and lived on the edge of town. I didn’t have structured nature education, but I just explored the hills and woods and creeks. And I developed a familiarity and comfort with the natural world that continued when I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where I did a lot of hiking and cross-country skiing.
BN: When did you first arrive in the Bay Area and what first brought you here?
MC: I first came out here in 1972 for a job at Stanford as an Assistant Dean. After four years I realized my skill set was a better match for small organizations. Since then, I’ve worked for a series of nonprofits, mostly ones with an environmental focus. And there were the mountains out here. I’ve always been drawn to the Sierra Nevada; I was very inspired by my first hiking experience there in 1974 – I felt like I’d been there in a previous life. Since then, I’ve taken 70 backpacking trips there.
BN: Tell us about Acterra.
MC: We primarily help people learn to live in harmony with the natural world by providing them with hands-on tools they can use to protect our environment. These hands-on activities give people something tangible to get engaged with. In some ways, we’re really more a behavior change organization than an environmental organization. That is, we don’t spend a lot of time trying to change state policy or even regional policy. Our impact comes from affecting the behavior of people in our area.
BN: It looks like Acterra does a lot of restoration projects in the South Bay.
MC: Yes, we involve about 4,000 people a year in restoration projects. Two-thirds of them are young people. And it’s not just about doing the work; it’s also about educating them about our Bay Area ecosystem and exposing them to its beauty. For instance, we take people out into Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto. It’s only 700 acres, but it’s a lovely spot for bird hikes, moonlight hikes—just to get people out in the natural world to learn about it and enjoy it. So in our own modest way we’re trying to overcome “Nature Deficit Disorder”.
BN: You have some big plans for a future Sierra trip, don’t you?
MC: In the summer of 2014 I hope to spend 75 days backpacking in the Sierra to celebrate my 75th birthday. I won’t be doing it all at once; I plan on taking 9-10 different trips with different people.
BN: What are some of your favorite places to hike closer to home?
MC: Sunol Regional Wilderness is one of my favorites – it’s a pretty big preserve and such a wonderful wild place. I encounter wild boar, bobcats; I’ve seen the remains of boar killed and partially eaten by mountain lions. In the early spring – the best time to go – you can go over these large hills and enjoy beautiful vistas, and you can go backpacking there.
I also like Henry Coe State Park, which is also very wild, and huge.
BN:Any final thoughts?
MC: We try to build love for the natural world. So many people are divorced from it. We are so blessed to live in the Bay Area. I don’t think there’s another part of the country that has so much natural beauty – and places to go to enjoy it.
>> Learn more about Acterra’s restoration activities, hikes, and special events here.