Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 5, 2013

Happy trails, Michael Closson

Acterra's executive director steps down after 10 years

by Eric Van Susteren

When Michael Closson moved from New York to Palo Alto in 1972 to work at Stanford University, his new job as assistant dean of undergraduate studies was nothing to sniff at. Still, within four years he had left the school to co-direct a local nonprofit.

"I made good contacts, and it got me to the West Coast, but I realized even then that my personality and interests were really suited for working in small communities," he said of his job at Stanford. "Even though I studied sociology, I was always more interested in changing society than studying it."

He applied that principle first in 1976 by co-directing New Ways to Work, which would be the first in a long trail of nonprofits that would lead him up and down the West Coast and finally back to Palo Alto to direct Acterra, a local environmental education and action organization.

Now, after 10 years of running the organization, Closson is retiring, but he's left his mark.

Since he took the helm of the organization in 2003, its staff has doubled in size, from 11 to 22; its assets have increased from $600,000 to $1 million; and the organization has implemented a host of new programs to get community members active in energy efficiency and environmental conservation.

Acterra was formed in 2000 as the result of a merger between two environmental nonprofits, Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation and Bay Area Action. It aims to provide tangible lessons to develop environmental consciousness in the community by using activities and an education-based approach, according to its website.

Environmentally focused organizations like Acterra gained special importance during the early 2000s, said Peter Drekmeier, an environmentalist and former mayor of Palo Alto.

While there had previously been a lot of focus on the environmental policies of state and national governments, Drekmeier said "a lack of leadership" in Washington during the George W. Bush administration spurred local government and organizations to fill the void.

Closson said budget crises and a gridlock in national-level politics make organizations like Acterra all the more important today. Besides, it's just the kind of work he feels he's cut out for.

"I'm more of a local-focus kind of guy," he said. "I like working with local people; I like the personal connection. It's important to have new federal policies, but I'm not the person to work on that."

He thinks Acterra and organizations like it can influence larger policy-making decisions by getting people involved in environmentalism at the local level, thereby building grass-roots momentum behind issues.

"The big enchilada here is climate change — people are not giving it the lip service it deserves," he said. "My analysis is we need new technology (and) new policies, and ultimately we'll need hundreds of millions to change their behavior, and that's the big thing: inducing, and convincing and nudging people to change our behaviors so we live more in harmony with our environment."

Acterra's programs are aimed at influencing people to change their behavior, from governments to companies to people.

The organization's environmental awards celebrate businesses for being more sustainable or environmentally conscious. Acterra also recruits volunteers to help restore and protect habitats in such places as the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and the San Francisquito watershed. It has several programs that train interested volunteers to become local environmental "leaders."

Possibly the most successful of these has been the Green@Home program. The program trains volunteers to conduct in-home energy audits so that they can educate homeowners to save energy and reduce their carbon footprint.

This mostly involves instructing homeowners to unplug power-draining amenities or replace aging appliances, but Closson said that's only the superficial benefit of the program.

He said the key of the educational components to programs is that they spur people to change the way they look at the environment and the way they treat it.

"There's a linear thinking that you educate people to change their consciousness and then they change their behaviors, but sometimes it happens in reverse," he said, using the implementation of curbside recycling as an example. "Once it reached a critical tipping point of people putting their recycling on the curb, people started to think 'I'd better start doing that, too,' ... so their consciousness changes."

He's looking forward to seeing Green@Home expanded even farther using an approach he describes as "high-touch and high-tech." Acterra is partnering with High Energy Audits, a Los Altos Hills company that produces readouts of energy use based on information gathered from homeowners' Smart Meters.

With detailed data at their fingertips, volunteers can give more specific and informed advice to homeowners, but the program will also save time and allow them to reach more clients, Closson said.

"Right now it's pretty labor-intensive," he said. "Five hundred-plus volunteers go out in teams of two and do free home-energy audits. Now, you can be much more efficient about how you handle visits because 10 or 20 percent of homes you can do through email or phone conversations.

"It's a nice combination because we can do the customer relations and we can also play the honest broker because we don't have a horse in this race," he said.

While the organization is making moves to use more technology, Closson, who earned his doctorate in sociology from Cornell, said he doesn't have a technical background or even a life-sciences background.

"I just spent time in the woods and in the streams, screwing around and learning to love nature and not be scared of it," he said.

His affinity for nature may have been part of what motivated him to start trying to protect it. After co-directing New Ways to Work in Palo Alto for six years, he went to work converting military facilities to areas for civilian use. Often that meant scrubbing them of toxins to make them available as open-space preserves. As his work there began to wind down, he helped organize the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in Seattle, where he stayed for another three years as the executive director of Biodiversity Northwest, which works to preserve old-growth redwoods. He worked there until he was tapped to lead Acterra.

Closson says his work has been most fulfilling when Acterra has touched lives — particularly young ones — with its programs.

"That's the real exciting stuff: when 10, 15 or 20 percent start to get hooked and come back to regular programs and when high school and college interns go on to make their careers or major in ecological studies," he said.

Even though he's beginning to see youth get involved in environmental issues, he said, overall the change isn't happening nearly quickly enough.

"I'm hopeful but not optimistic," he said. "I have to say that about us avoiding the serious impacts of climate change. I don't think we've realized the enormity of the threat because even though it's rapid in geological terms, it's slow in human terms."

Part of the reason Closson, 74, will leave the organization is to focus more on implementing new programs and less on the ins and outs of running a nonprofit.

"I spend an awful lot of time doing administrative work — managing the staff, hiring, raising money — and it's fun, but I'd like to spend more of my time actually doing programs that are focused on climate change and not as much on administrative activities," he said.

Drekmeier said the the role of executive director can be a taxing one, involving long hours and some certain sacrifices.

"There's a lot of pressure behind an executive director," he said. "He's a wonderful role model for living his passion. Sometimes there's not a clear delineation between his work and social life — he carries it with him wherever he goes — and that makes him a great ambassador for Acterra."

With a burn rate of about $120,000 a month, the organization would run out of money after three months if it stopped fundraising, Closson said. That puts extra pressure on him as a fundraiser.

"There's always a low level of stress," he said. "I've adjusted to it pretty well because I've been doing it so long. It's not overwhelming — I don't lose sleep over it or anything — but you're always conscious of it."

While the organization looks for a replacement for Closson, he's using the five months he has left trying to make the transition smooth.

He thinks his replacement must have an entrepreneurial spirit and be able to develop new projects. The new director would also have to be adaptable as new climate-change issues come up.

"Water is a big issue and is going to be a big issue, and I'm sure we're only going to get more involved than we are already," he said.

Now that the organization has seen increased interest from businesses, it's ready to become more Silicon Valley-focused. Acterra Board Chair Judith Steiner said she's interested in seeing an executive director with experience in the corporate world or in working with corporations who can bridge the gap between nonprofit and corporate cultures.

Drekmeier thinks Closson's replacement will have big shoes to fill.

"Organizations develop around leadership," he said. "Michael is such a strong leader that they won't find someone with his exact skills. That's the challenge to make transition possible."

During his retirement, Closson hopes to continue to work in environmentalism on a local level and is particularly interested in promoting the use of distributed rather than centralized energy sources. While he'll have fewer resources and won't have the advantage of the credibility that being executive director of a nonprofit like Acterra lends, he said one can "do an awful lot just by talking to people."

Closson's experience, skills and activities at Acterra have put him in an excellent position to consult with other nonprofits, Steiner said.

"Basically he has a vast knowledge of players in the community; he works with local government; and he's a good writer," she said.

Of course, retirement won't be all work for Closson. Four days after he retires, he'll be on a plane to the United Kingdom, where he'll spend three weeks hiking from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. He also hopes to spend more time in his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains.

"The ideal world is one where I can take projects for a couple months or do something where I'm only working 15 or 20 hours a week that I can space out to have some fun and relax," he said. "I'm definitely going to play more."

Online Editor Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

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