Oliver Bass, the President of Natural Lands, a non-profit organization that saves open space, cares for nature, and connects people to the outdoors in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, spoke to VISTA Today about being born in Arkansas and growing up in a rural town in East Texas, where he spent the majority of his childhood playing outside and attended a boarding school near Austin where he organized school dances and concerts.
Bass also discussed his passion for music and theatre, what influenced his decision to enroll at Northwestern instead of become the third generation of his family to work in the lumber business, how he grew throughout his tenure at Natural Lands, and what the organization’s current challenges and opportunities are.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Oliver?
I was born the youngest of three children in 1963 in the town of El Dorado in Southern Arkansas. My parents were both from there. We moved from Arkansas to East Texas when I was about five years old. I haven’t lived there in a very long time, but Texas still feels like home to me.
What did your parents do?
My father was in the lumber business as his father, and many of his uncles had been. After serving in the Korean War, he worked at his father’s sawmill in Southern Arkansas then purchased his own mill near Crockett, Texas in 1969.
My mom worked in the home. She assisted my dad with bookkeeping, but primarily, she ran the household and took care of the children. She was active in the local church, especially in the choir.
What memories do you have of growing up in Crockett, Texas?
Crockett was the county seat of the oldest county in Texas – Houston County – and was named after Davy Crockett, who, legend has it, camped there on the way to the Alamo. Or at least that’s the story that was told to us kids. It was a town of about 7,000 people and very rural.
I spent most of my childhood outside. We lived in a subdivision outside of town surrounded by woods and a vacant lot next to our house, which served as the neighborhood playground. You came home from school, went outside, and didn’t come back until dinner time. We dug for crawdads and built damns in the creeks.
You don’t have a Texas accent, what happened?
I’ve been out of Texas since college, so it’s been a long time since I lived there. I also studied voice for a while in college and worked in radio for a time. Those factors helped me get rid of an accent. But, if I’m home for any length of time, my accent starts to come back.
Did you play any sports growing up?
My sisters and I went to a boarding school outside of Austin for high school. We were required to play a team sport. I played football for a season but wasn’t very good so I switched to soccer. Most of my time was spent on music and theatre.
Where did your passion for music and theater come from?
My mother was a singer who had an extraordinary, soprano voice. She got me involved in the church choir when I was in middle school. I loved it. I continued to sing and participated in, and direct school plays through high school.
Did you continue that into college?
I went to Northwestern University near Chicago as a voice major. I’m not sure I could get into Northwestern today! After a year-and-a-half at Northwestern, I switched my major to communications – radio, TV, and film specifically.
Why Northwestern of all places?
A couple of things influenced my decision to attend Northwestern. My father never once gave me a sense that there was any pressure on me to go into the family business. It would have been logical because I would have been the third generation in our family to do so. Rather, he and my mom embraced my love of the arts. Their one caveat was that I not go to a conservatory, but rather a regular four-year college, in case I didn’t want to continue that study. Northwestern fit the bill and was one of only a couple of schools that I applied to. There was something about the curriculum and the voice program at Northwestern that I found attractive. And it worked out. It’s where I met my wife of 32 years!
You started in voice, why the transition to radio and television?
While I loved singing and had a passion for it, I didn’t have the passion for Opera, nor did I have the drive that many of my music-major classmates had. They would practice for hours and hours. I knew singing wasn’t something I should keep doing if I wasn’t completely committed because music is not a job, it’s a life.
In hindsight, was the switch good for you?
It was a great move! Northwestern has one of the best communications schools in the country. I also had opportunities there to do some extracurricular things that I learned and gained so much from.
For example, I was involved in the campus activities organization. They did all the concert and event planning for the University. By the time I was a senior, I was planning and producing events for thousands of people with multiple bands and learning how to negotiate contracts with agents, hotels, security and sound companies, and more. I was learning invaluable organization and management skills. I also learned about crisis management! I’m amazed by how many of the skills I learned as a 21-year old I still use today.
What experience helped prepare you for that role?
I had been doing the same thing, on a much smaller scale, in high school. There, I organized and planned concerts and formal dances. By dumb luck, I managed to book Christopher Cross for a school dance the Fall before his hit album dropped.
Did your father have any influence on those skills?
Absolutely! My dad is not the kind of person who sat down and spoke great wisdom. He is the kind of guy you learn from by watching. He had an incredible work ethic with building and maintaining his own business and set a great example of giving back and being involved in the community.
My dad is very compassionate. He came to Texas with a couple of employees from his dad’s mill in Arkansas. He treated them more as extended family. He tried hard to take care of the people who worked for him.
Was your first job in your dad’s mill?
He actually never let me work there! One of these days I’ll have to ask him why and then thank him! Working at the mill can be dangerous work. He also saw that my interests were elsewhere.
In high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. My parents arranged for me to work in the local hospital for two summers. The first summer, I worked in the x-ray department. I was taking x-rays of patients myself at seventeen.
The second summer, I worked in the emergency room and even worked on the crash team. I saw people and families in really, really difficult situations and watched professionals deal with the chaos that is an emergency room. I learned to manage my emotions and reactions in a crisis. I also learned that I did not want to be a doctor!
You took away a ton of lessons away from your time working in the hospital, didn’t you?
I grew up in a poor community. I came to appreciate that much more through that experience than I had previously. You can’t help but learn empathy in a profound way in that setting.
You get out of college, who were the people who gave you your breaks?
I moved to West Virginia not long after college to work at a radio station. I made the transition from a commercial radio station to West Virginia Public Radio. The General Manager there, Barbara Herrick, embraced me, took me under her wing and gave me opportunities to lead. She expected a lot from me despite my young age. That meant a great deal to me because I had immense respect for her.
Over my tenure at Natural Lands, Molly Morrison was an exceptional, generous mentor and gave me opportunities to grow and explore opportunities beyond my job description. She allowed me to develop as a leader both by watching her example and by being put in situations where I would need to rise to the occasion.
What do you think Molly saw in you?
I think we connected on several levels because we have similar backgrounds and interests. One of the opportunities Molly gave me nine years ago was to create a department that would be focused on what was then a new area of mission focus for us – connecting people to nature. That is now the third leg of our mission, alongside protecting open space and caring for nature. That effort required a shift for the organization. We were moving from protecting nature from people to protecting nature for and with people. That assignment allowed me to learn a lot about leading change.
You’ve been CEO for seven months. Describe Natural Lands’ current challenges and opportunities.
We continue to protect more open space, steward our still-growing network of nature preserves – to include the new, 520-acre Bryn Coed Preserve in Chester Springs and our Stoneleigh: a natural garden – and engage the public through robust programs, visits to the preserves, and volunteerism. However, when you’re in the business of conservation, you’re in the business of “forever.” We make a perpetual commitment to the land we preserve. Therefore, we always need to be thinking of the inevitable changes that we will need to adapt to.
Right now, we are particularly focused on three changes. One is addressing the population growth expected of our region over the coming years. Chester County alone is expected to experience twenty-eight percent growth between now and 2045. Montgomery County is looking at potentially 14-percent population increase, Bucks County, 11-percent. Even Philadelphia is expected to grow by 100,000 people between now and 2045. In total, the region will likely grow by almost half a million people.
That growth means more demand for land for development and more need for open spaces, which become even more critical as the region’s population expands. We need to be proactive now in identifying parcels that need to be and should be conserved, either because of their ecological value or because they are important to a community. It’s not always about size. Three hundred acres may be significant in northern Chester County but so is the five-acre lot in Upper Darby.
Another issue we are all dealing with is climate change. As an owner of forty-four preserves and twenty-two thousand acres, we need to think about what climate change means to the management of those properties. We need to think about what kinds of plant and tree species will survive long term and how we make the most of open spaces’ natural ability store carbon and mitigate flooding. We do a lot of consulting with municipalities, and we have an opportunity to advise them on how best to deal with climate change, as well.
The third kind of change is about the demographic makeup of this region and country. In a few decades, those who are currently in the minority will likely be the majority. The conservation movement takes it as a given that biodiversity is essential to the health and sustainability of an ecosystem but we’ve been slow to recognize that diversity is also essential to our work and organizations. That has to change so, at Natural Lands, we have committed ourselves to the hard work of learning how to make our organization and cause welcoming and inclusive for everyone.
What do you do in your free time, Oliver?
Some of my free-time still goes to parenting! We have one daughter who’s graduated college and is working in Philadelphia for the District Attorney’s wrongful conviction unit. She lives downtown as well which provides a great excuse to enjoy the city’s excellent restaurants. Our other daughter is a junior at Springfield High School in Delaware County so we’ll be starting the college visit process, soon.
I also play guitar and write songs. We love to travel when we can and have made a point of introducing our daughters to the world west of the Mississippi where my wife and I grew up.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Like I said earlier, my father showed my sisters and me how to be. He’s almost ninety years old now, living independently in Texas, and thankfully in excellent health so I’m still learning from him.
He especially showed me what love of nature is. There were two different versions of my dad when he came home from work. When he came home from the office after a day spent dealing with the challenges of running a business, he was tired and quiet. Then there was the dad who came home after working in the woods all day, looking at stands of timber. He’d come home dirty, smelly, and with a grin on his face. What I took from that was that his happy place was in nature. That’s just one of the many gifts he’s given me.