August 09, 2023

Peter Smerud Earns 2023 ANCA Nature Center Leadership Award

A light-skinned person in business-casual attire sits on a large stone. In the background, a blurry two-level building with blue siding.Peter Smerud, recipient of the 2023 ANCA Nature Center Leadership Award.

The Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) is pleased to announce Peter Smerud as recipient of the 2023 ANCA Nature Center Leadership Award. This award acknowledges Smerud’s major achievements at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minn., as well as within the nature center and outdoor school profession.

Smerud’s environmental education career began in 1985, joining Wolf Ridge in 1987 when he started working as a naturalist. In the 36 years since, Smerud has been a part of nearly all Wolf Ridge operations, including facility and program development, adventure education, and administration. He assumed the role of Executive Director in 2011, leading the organization of 90 full-time and seasonal staff.

Under Smerud’s leadership, the organization has established an onsite organic farm, a new graduate student dormitory and partnership, acquired a 68-acre property and began programming on a Lake Superior Field Station, and completed the renovation of Wolf Ridge’s Margaret A. Cargill Lodge, which houses students who participate in multi-day, overnight programs. This was the first renovation project — and 30th building overall — in the world to achieve full certification of the Living Building Challenge, the highest international standard for sustainability, inclusive of energy, water, site, health, and equity sub-standards.  

Smerud also notably led Wolf Ridge through the pandemic, which had a particularly devastating effect on the outdoor school profession, where programs are overnight and organizations rely primarily on earned income from programs. While Wolf Ridge couldn’t hold any programs for 15 months, a 99% loss of income, Smerud’s leadership ensured that the organization withstood these monumental challenges.

However, Smerud’s accomplishments do not stop at the boundaries of Wolf Ridge. He has been a prominent force in the outdoor school profession, providing consultation and support to organizations throughout the US and worldwide. In January 2020, through an ANCA connection, Smerud served as a consultant sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and funded by the US State Department, to support development of environmental education programs in China. More recently, Smerud has played an instrumental role in the ANCA Outdoor School for All Campaign, which aims to establish new outdoor schools and strengthen existing programs.

Smerud has also been active since 2000 in other aspects of ANCA, being a regular participant at the Outdoor School Summit (previously known as the RELC Gathering) and the ANCA Annual Summit, serving on ANCA Peer Consult teams, and supporting future leaders in the ANCA Mentor Program.

ANCA will recognize Smerud with this award as part of the Leadership Award Ceremony on August 23rd at the 2023 ANCA Annual Summit.

"Pete Smerud is an exceptional leader and very deserving of the ANCA Nature Center Leadership Award. I have been working closely with Pete as a member of ANCA’s Outdoor School for All Consortium and am constantly impressed with his creativity, strategic thinking, and perseverance when faced with incredible obstacles. Pete raises the bar for leadership and always extends a hand to those around him to elevate other leaders along the way.”

— Jen Levy, ANCA Executive Director


The ANCA Nature Center Leadership Award recognizes an individual who in their role at the highest administrative level of an organization has made a major contribution to the success of a nature center, as well as important contributions to the profession through professional organizations and the support of other nature center leaders. ANCA has presented this award to one individual each year since 2000.


The Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) promotes and supports best leadership and management practices for the nature and environmental learning center profession. It is the only such organization in North America and supports over 700 dues-paying members that include nature center directors, managers, senior administrators, and board members.