Back Story

Steve Keto

Natural Areas & Preserves Manager, Western Michigan University

Steve Keto’s passion for ecological services can fill a whole forest canopy.

Since 2012, Keto has overseen 5,000 acres of Western Michigan University land within the city of Kalamazoo, including Kleinstuck Preserve, the Asylum Lake Preserve and prairie lands, and woodlots across WMU’s campus.

To walk through the woods with Keto is to walk with a boisterous, breathing nature identification textbook. In his eyes, each plant has a personality, each animal a story. He points across Asylum Lake at two distant swans and casually says, “Oh, I know them.” He’s been known to rescue a lost baby waterfowl and drive it in the front seat of his truck to return it to its family. And like the Lorax from Dr. Seuss’ picture book, he says his job is to speak for the trees.

How do you describe what you do?

There are three parts to my job. First, I am steward of the land. I am going to leave this land better than I found it. Second, I am responsible for you, whoever you may be, to use this land for free, passive recreation like jogging, fishing or walking your dog. Third is helping students conduct educational research on this land.

How did you get where you are today?

I started out, like a lot of teens, working at summer camps, but I soon found that what I wanted to do was science or nature education — not just play with the kids but have some sort of interaction with environmental education. I went into wildlife management and became very interested in birds and got an animal science degree, specializing in poultry science for marketability more than anything else. Wildlife managers get into their jobs, stick with those jobs, and they don’t turn over too quick, whereas everyone eats chicken.

However, every job I’ve had up to this point has had an educational component. I find it incumbent on me, if I learn something, to share it with others. That’s been the fun in all my jobs. I got an opportunity to get a job in Michigan because my wife’s family had a 125-year-old greenhouse operation. I had no experience in greenhouses, but my background in wildlife helped. Back when I started in the ’80s, we were pioneers in propagating and selling native plants. This was oddball, wacky. Most people were spraying and killing native plants at this time. I came to WMU in 2008 when the greenhouse closed and became the preserves manager in 2012.

What keeps you up at night?

I care deeply about species protection. Places like Kleinstuck and Asylum Lake ensure that certain species survive. All too often humans only want to protect species that directly serve us. However, a whole ecosystem is like a smartphone — clipping one random wire could turn your device into a piece of junk. We don’t know the ramifications of pushing out one animal or plant. I hope the kids who come out to these places are inspired and fight to protect wild spaces.

Which groups do you work with?

Maple Street Middle School comes to Kleinstuck Preserve for a program called “Notice, Wander, Predict,” where they slow down and appreciate the benefits of natural spaces. Kazoo School comes every week, and they do everything. They weed, plant seed, dig plugs, track wildlife and build trails. KAMSC (Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center) visits for their summer classes. Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary comes for field trips and service days. Stewards of Kleinstuck and I work together to provide a wildflower tour for citizens. The Boy Scouts work out here, and university students conduct research as well. All of these groups come out at no charge.

Who has inspired you?

My dad. I appreciate him so much. He was in wildlife management when he was younger. He and my mother fought their whole lives to protect the environment, but also for fairness for other people. My dad always encouraged me to go outdoors and to get involved.

Do you have a fond memory in nature from childhood?

I don’t want to say “fond.” My brother and I have the same memory. It’s a very difficult thing. As a child, I lived in the Hudson River Valley, New York. Behind my home was probably over 100 acres of woods and old farms and streams. As a teenager, I watched as all that acreage was turned into a parking lot. I saw the pheasant, ruffed grouse and deer all go away. It affected me tremendously. It inspired the work I do today. All those malls have since foreclosed.

Why do you love what you do?

There are 209 species of birds in Kleinstuck Preserve. How amazing is that? And just a couple yards away, we have major roads. Being in charge of these spaces is a great honor for me. I tell everyone this is the best job in the university, bar none. It’s so satisfying to spend a day with kids or remove invasive species or put up bird boxes. It’s just a joy.

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His dream job

"Being in charge of these spaces is a great honor for me. I tell everyone this is the best job in the university, bar none. It’s so satisfying to spend a day with kids or remove invasive species or put up bird boxes. It’s just a joy."
— Steve Keto