Today, Don reflects on the founding of this organization and the impact it has had on 1.5 million students. At the time, could he have imagined that NatureBridge would become the largest education partner of the National Park Service? Could he envision connecting students to the outdoors in not just Yosemite National Park and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California but in Olympic National Park in Washington; the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California; and Prince William Forest Park in Virginia too?
Many friends and colleagues would likely tell you so; believing firmly that Don’s enthusiasm and resourcefulness in the 1970s would be the catalyst for a hands-on learning, outdoor educational program in the park is one that will continue to have a lasting impact on this and future generations.
Don was raised in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, but even from a young age he was drawn to nature. He could often be found gazing at the San Gabriel Mountains from atop poplar trees in his backyard. Eventually, his mother was able to rent a mountain cabin in the summer which gave Don the freedom to explore and connect with the outdoors, an experience he remembers fondly.
That passion for being outdoors carried into adult life. When they weren’t in the classroom teaching, Don and his wife Jo Ann, spent the 1960s adventuring, exploring and leading multi-week backpacking excursions through the Sierra Nevada and ski trips to Mammoth, China Peak,Squaw Valley and Europe. One fateful summer, a family vacation to Yosemite National Park included a three-day backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Don happened across Wayne Merry, director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS). That moment would take Don back up to Tuolumne for a climbing lesson and then into the offices of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YP&CCo).
“Wayne and I discussed a school week of outdoor science, history, rock climbing, hiking, cross-country skiing, etc.,” Don wrote when reflecting on NatureBridge’s 25th anniversary. “Such a week would not be vacation; it would be serious learning, yet fun, in an outdoor setting.”
In the spring of 1971, more than 50 ninth and tenth grade students and five teacher chaperones from Laguna Blanca School boarded a charter bus and headed north.
At the time, the National Park Service had just “one and one-half naturalists” and thus, could not spare someone for the program. Don invoked the help of friend Will Neely of Santa Barbara to share insight and knowledge on the flora and fauna of Tuolumne Meadows with the students. Will’s field instruction was a tremendous asset throughout the week. In fact, he was the first and only educator for part of that inaugural year.
The trip was a success. So much so that Don returned to the park that spring and summer, equipped with a curriculum and marketing plan to advocate for his proposal of a permanent program in the park. It took some, or rather much, persistence and coaxing, but in the end, there must have been something about Don’s winning combination of business sense and passion for the outdoors that did the trick. Don was so persistent that the National Park Service once treated the Rees family to a stay in the High Sierra cabins, a gift that Don jokes was likely just to get him out of their hair. In the end, Yosemite Superintendent Lynn Thompson and Deputy Superintendent John Good agreed to his plan and in August of 1971, Yosemite Institute prepared to welcome its first official group to the park.
“I had one year and $20,000 in YP&CCo seed money to make it work,” recalled Don. “How did a high school math teacher from Santa Barbara get in to see the park service, land a meeting with the superintendent and get permission to start a school in a national park? I have no idea,” Don said chuckling as he recalled the inception of the program. “I was 33 years old. [My daughter] Ann says I had energy but that doesn’t explain much!”