Story by Natasha Anderson
Michael Skinner was immersed in the outdoors at a very young age. Growing up on the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, he was part of a family that hunted, fished and had a strong appreciation for the natural world. Though he set his sights on a career in science and nature early on, the path that led him to become executive director of Balsam Mountain Trust (BMT), in Sylva, was a circuitous one.
“The various positions I’ve held provided me with opportunities to walk in a lot of other people’s shoes,” says Skinner. “I’ve always been a curious sort, which is probably why I chose the arts and sciences as paths to wander down in an effort to find solid ground.”
As a wildlife management major at Southern Illinois University, Skinner was awarded an internship at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where he gained an interest in wildlife from around the world. Having previously planned to work with species that are hunted and fished in the US, he instead began his career as an education curator for a small zoo in Texas. From there, he progressed to positions at Zoo Atlanta, Fernbank Museum of Natural History and the Chattahoochee Nature Center and became a professional nature photographer and photo editor for a magazine publishing company in Atlanta. Skinner then landed a job as the host and producer of Georgia Public Television’s Georgia Outdoors. He joined BMT as staff naturalist in 2002 and became executive director in 2004.
“My position with the Trust allows me to wear a lot of hats,” he says. “If one were to get bored in a job such as mine, well then, I’m not sure what else one might pursue.”
Skinner has used his array of knowledge and penchant for multitasking to help expand BMT’s reach beyond the boundaries of the Preserve. Formed in 2002 for the primary purpose of managing Preserve land, the Trust has since become a regional leader in conservation education. Currently, the bulk of the organization’s work is centered around presenting Birds of Prey and other wildlife programming throughout Jackson, Haywood, Macon and Swain counties.
“The Birds of Prey program that Michael initiated has shaped both our messaging and the kinds of relationships we have been able to foster in our community,” says BMT’s senior naturalist and education director Jen Knight. “There is no substitute for the kind of connection you can make to an audience with a wild animal, particularly one as striking as a bird of prey.”
The Trust also developed the Adopt-A-School program in 2013, bringing science curriculum to ten partner schools in Jackson and Haywood counties. In 2014, the Preserve became a host site for the Conservation Trust of North Carolina AmeriCorps program. The AmeriCorps members helped expand BMT’s reach by providing free pollinator education in schools and libraries. “Michael made space in our organization for staff to take risks and try out novel ideas,” says Knight. “As a result, we have been able to forge new regional partnerships and develop projects that allow us to best serve our community.”
Most recently, BMT worked with its Board of Trustees to institute a grant program for local conservation efforts and to allow increased community access to Preserve lands through registered events. The Trust continues to provide interpretive and experiential programs for Balsam Mountain Preserve members and is constantly working on new seasonal exhibits for the Preserve’s Nature Center, which is undergoing renovations as part of a current expansion initiative. The initiative also includes Doubletop Village, a mountain hamlet of residential cottages, dining and recreational amenities scheduled to open in early 2020.
“I’m proud that the Trust has established a reputation as a go-to organization for people seeking answers to their curiosities about the natural world,” says Skinner. “We look forward to continued evolution and growth of our programming and other services.”
Balsam Mountain Preserve is located at 81 Preserve Road, Sylva. Learn more by visiting balsammountaintrust.org or by calling 828.631.1060. Follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/BalsamMountainTrust.