By Judy Reed
Cedar Springs naturalist Steven Joel Mueller, known as Ranger Steve to many of us, was recently nominated and won the Thomas Say Naturalist Award for Excellence. The award was presented to him in November, at the National Association of Interpretation in Denver, Colorado.
“It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by colleagues,” said Mueller. “Colleagues throughout my career mentored me and made it possible for me excel. I have worked diligently to become competent in a broad spectrum of natural history subjects and to hone interpretive skills.”
According to the National Association of Interpretation website, Thomas Say (1787-1834), identified more than 1,500 species of insects and animals unique to North America (including the coyote), and was one of the brave naturalists who helped blaze a trail for future naturalists. Say was said to represent innovation, commitment, and a passion to contribute to science.
Those are all qualities that Mueller exhibits, and it shows in his Nature Niche articles each week in the Post.
Mueller grew up in Saginaw, and held several different jobs related to the nature field over the years. He was a high school science teacher in Alpena, Michigan, Dry Ridge, Kentucky, and Kenosha, Wisconsin; an urban forester for Dow Chemical in Midland; a state park ranger in Traverse City; a ranger/naturalist at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah; where he discovered a new species of moth; and a teacher at Jordan College in Cedar Springs. Many know him best as the director of Howard Christiansen Nature Center for over 20 years. When that temporarily closed in 2005, Lowell Schools hired him to direct the program at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-Science Environmental Center. He retired from there in 2008 due to bone cancer. Besides those programs, Mueller has been President of the Grand Rapids Audubon Club, President for the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education, West Michigan Butterfly Association, and Grand Rapids Camera Club. He has won several other awards.
Mueller was nominated for the Thomas Say award by Ray Novotny, a founder of the NAI and life member. “Steve has consistently demonstrated his passion for our profession,” wrote Novotny.
He also received several letters of support. “Steve is a driven individual, whether following his own curiosity in research and exploration or in his indomitable spirit to not let his cancer interfere with what he loves,” said Dorothy F. McLeer, CIT, CIG, MALS, Program Coordinator/Interpretive Naturalist for the University of Michigan-Dearborn Environmental Interpretive Center. “There is a lot left that Steve wants to do in his life, and how he is dealing with his illness is also inspirational. It has been my privilege to know and learn from “Ranger Steve” Mueller throughout my interpretive career.”
Mueller has a passion for nature that his cancer cannot diminish. He attends professional conferences with specialists in entomology, ornithology, botany, and interpretation annually. “When I am with specialists in each field, I am humbled by how limited my knowledge is but I learn so very much from each… It is the broad spectrum knowledge in many fields of natural history that has allowed me to be effective with natural history interpretation,” explained Mueller.
He said it is the continued curiosity about the natural world around us that made it possible for him to discover a new species to science, find species at Isle Royale National Park that had not been found previously, and to discover a breeding colony of Northern Blue Butterflies new to Michigan.
“I am fortunate to continue my work after going home from work,” remarked Mueller. “My supervisor told me it must be nice to have my work also be my passion.”
Other awards Ranger Steve has been honored with include:
2013 – Grand Rapids Camera Club hall of fame inducted Feb 2013
2011 – NAI Senior/Retired Intepreter,
2010 – NAI Distinguished Professional Interpreter (Region 4’s highest honor),
2008 – Mary Jane Dockeray Award – Outstanding Environmental Educator form the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
2005 - William Stapp Environmental Education Award, Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education,
2002 – Charlotte Runnels Conservation Award, Grand Rapids Audubon Club,
2000 – Michigan Audubon Society Member of the Year,
1985 - Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Recognition for Peregrine Falcon reintroduction,
1979 – Special Achievement Award from the National Park Service for outstanding performance as director of the Environmental Education.
Congratulations, Ranger Steve!