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Acterra executive director to retire

Michael Closson, 74, seeks to 'shake up my life a little bit'

Michael Closson, who has led the Palo Alto environmental nonprofit Acterra for a decade, will retire as executive director on Aug. 31, the organization has announced.

During his tenure, Closson expanded Acterra's programs and strengthened its finances, growing its assets from $600,000 in mid-2003 to more than $1 million by mid-2011, according to forms filed with the state of California.

As Acterra has grown, Closson said, his work managing a staff of 22 became largely administrative.

"I'm 74 years old, and I'm in good shape. It's time to shake up my life a little bit. I'm looking for more program-related work that is not administrative. It's a good time for me to explore," he said by phone on Wednesday.

Closson was hired in May 2003, just three years after the organization was formed out of a merger of two other environmental nonprofits, Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation and Bay Area Action.

"Under Michael's leadership, Acterra really came into its own," said Judith Steiner, president of the Acterra board of directors.

"I think Michael's greatest contributions came as a result of his ability to articulate his own passion for saving the planet and motivate our staff and board to follow his lead," she said.

Among Closson's accomplishments were overseeing the development of the Green@Home program, which has taught nearly 2,000 homeowners in Silicon Valley to save energy and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions; enlarging Acterra's Stewardship Program to include major habitat restoration projects at sites such as Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto and Stevens and Permanente creeks in Cupertino and Mountain View; providing environmental education to youth through the Stewardship Program, which now involves 3,000 local teens annually; and strengthening the group's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which funds community projects such as GreenTown Los Altos, City Trees in Redwood City and the Barron Park Donkeys.

Closson, who has a doctorate in sociology, said working for environmental causes is a natural outgrowth of his childhood experiences in the woods of Troy, N.Y., and his love of hiking the eastern Sierra Mountains. He was influenced by David Brower, then head of the Sierra Club, and worked with former Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier in Seattle, Wash., on Earth Day 2000 as its programs director and as executive director of Biodiversity Northwest.

Closson was formerly the executive director of the Center for Economic Conversion in Mountain View, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s worked to convert military bases to public uses, many of which were polluted with toxic materials, he said. He also served as assistant dean of undergraduate studies at Stanford University and was co-director of New Ways to Work.

Of his tenure at Acterra, Closson said he is most proud that Acterra's programs engage the public, especially youth. More than 5,000 people are actively engaged in volunteer pursuits through its programs, and 3,000 -- or 60 percent -- are youths, he said.

Acterra is the "antidote" to children being plugged into technology and not spending time outdoors, he said.

Acterra has also worked to make public entities more environmentally aware, he said.

"Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View now have environmental coordinators," he said, adding that a good part of Acterra's contracts come from city funding for various land-stewardship programs.

Following his departure from Acterra, Closson wants to focus on climate change on the local level. And he could lend his services as an interim executive director to organizations in transition, he said.

Acterra is working on designating his successor, and an announcement could come in March. He is leaving the organization in good financial shape and in good hands, with "great staff," such as Associate Director Debbie Mytels, Closson said.

Steiner said the group is implementing a previously developed succession plan.

"Transitioning from a long-standing, successful executive director is a challenge for any nonprofit. Although Michael leaves us with big shoes to fill, we are confident that we will face this challenge and come out strong for the future," she said.

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