Environmental educator Conrad Baker ’14 combines his journalism background with his enthusiasm for nature.
by Robyn Rime
From the joy of seeing his first-ever mourning cloak butterfly to the architectural history of an old stone wall, Conrad Baker ’14 finds magic in nature’s details. Happily, as an environmental educator for Letchworth State Park, he gets to share that enchantment with others every day.
“In some ways, Western New York reminds me of New York City,” he says. “You need somebody who lives here to guide you and show you the hidden gems.”
Baker guides his audiences in a variety of ways — leading in-person field trips for school groups, posting fun-fact-filled videos on social media, or providing roving interpretation for park visitors on busy weekends, like during fall foliage season.
Park programs range widely, he says, “from popular topics, like geology or animal signs or insect safaris, to custom-built programs for specific interests, such as pond scooping for water quality sampling or a forestry practice like timber harvesting.”
Communicating with the public — in person, through writing or via video — is at the root of his job as an educator, Baker says. His love of the outdoors came naturally (“I’ve always been grubbing in the dirt,” he laughs), but the communication skills were acquired, both as an English major at SUNY Geneseo and as a multimedia journalist and as a co-owner of the news site GeneseeSun.com from 2014-2018.
“As a journalist, I saw that the most sensationally popular stories were not crime or public safety but wildlife stories,” he says. “Whenever a bear was seen in the Village of Geneseo or a weird invasive insect was found, the posts started going viral. Those were the stories people cared about. I found myself more and more often consulting the educators at Letchworth, and after a while, I realized I could make a career for myself talking to people about nature.”
“Talking about nature” is wider in scope than it sounds. Hired by Letchworth just as the pandemic began limiting in-person activities, Baker helped expand the park’s library of video lessons, attracting school groups from across the country and launching a “Nature Detectives” video series on Facebook and Instagram. As a trained communicator, he appreciates how versatile the outdoor education field is becoming, with previously uncommon virtual programming now an industry standard.
But don’t let humdrum, jargony talk about “content delivery methods” mislead you. Environmental knowledge is pretty cool, and the nature geek inside Baker is delighted to share it. Known as “Bug Boy” around the park offices, for example, he can rhapsodize about the hidden worlds of insects that run our whole ecosystem.
“I especially love school programs about native monarch butterflies or pollinator gardening or the arms race between pine sawyer beetles and parasitoid wasps,” he says. “It’s always fascinating to show young kids how much is going on right under their feet.”
Baker’s favorite places in Letchworth are the old-growth forest on trails 2 and 2A. “They’re so rugged and so steep they couldn’t be logged by the horse-drawn logging equipment of the 1850s,” he says. Hidden on those trails are stands of hemlocks that jewelers’ loupes and tedious-but-accurate counting reveal to be nearly 300 years old, or a stinkhorn fungus with a suggestive shape and a pervasive stench. Sights like those are easier to find in undisturbed forest areas, Baker says.
That deep familiarity with park details reveals Baker’s immersion in the area’s environment. Brought to the Genesee River Valley by the College (he’s originally from Grand Island, N.Y.), he has fallen in love with the area and its robust outdoor recreation and tourism economy. Now committed to the region, he also serves as a board member and vice president of communications and technology for the New York State Outdoor Education Association, and he’s a contributor to ExploreGeneseeValley.com and the Letchworth Gateway Villages Initiative.
“Nature has always been near and dear to my heart,” says Baker, “and for a long time, I thought that would be my hobby and communications would be my job.” He’s happy to have connected the two, and happier still to forge that connection for others, “making the familiar and ordinary world exciting and full of beauty and discovery and wonder.”
Fun Facts about Letchworth State Park
- Letchworth State Park has nearly 70 miles of trails. “Most trails are less than five miles long but cover an astounding range of habitats and historic sites, from old-growth forest to hidden waterfalls, from 550-foot cliffs to the ruins of mill towns and the gravesite of Mary Jemison, the Irish captive turned Seneca celebrity. The full trail diversity surprises a lot of locals who come to the park to take pictures of waterfalls and think they know it.”
- Letchworth has more species of nesting wood warblers than anywhere else on the planet. “Between the extremely rugged vertical cliffs and meadows and floodplains and mixed woods, there’s a wide variety of habitats, and the warblers take full advantage of them.”
- ExploreGeneseeValley.com has an interactive online map. “Local adventurers can drop pins at their favorite hotspots and say, ‘Here’s a little tavern where I always have poutine,’ or ‘This cross-country skiing trail entrance goes right past a pond that always has beavers.’ There are nuggets that you’ll never get from a billboard or a Yelp review. It’s an on-the-ground, active, living review system, like having your own personal tour guide.”