Lee Ann Landstrom says she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t drawn to nature.
Wildlife biology captured her interest as a child growing up in St. Louis Park, propelling her to pursue a degree in biology from Carleton College in Northfield and a graduate degree in biology with a focus on ecology from the University of Michigan.
“I always thought I was going to be more of a researcher,” Landstrom said recently. But a seasonal job in 1980 at Eastman Nature Center in Dayton shifted her interest to nature-oriented education. “It became my calling,” she said. After brief stints at the Minnesota Zoo and Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, she landed a permanent job at Eastman in 1985.
Landstrom, 60, recently retired after more than 30 years as an interpretive naturalist for the Three Rivers Park District. The state’s largest park system, Three Rivers’ holdings include Eastman, where Landstrom served as the center’s supervisor. In her career with Three Rivers, Landstrom also oversaw interpretive operations at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park in Brooklyn Park and North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis.
“Her commitment to environmental education has been outstanding,” said Three Rivers Associate Superintendent Tom McDowell, who hired Landstrom.
McDowell said he and other colleagues came to rely on Landstrom’s attention to detail and encyclopedic memory.
“At her going-away party, a number of people were talking about the extent to which she would document things even from an informal meeting,” McDowell said. “Knowing someone is doing that is a tremendous asset. On any number of occasions we could always say, ‘Let’s ask Lee Ann.’ ”
McDowell said Landstrom’s passion for environmental education and her organizational skills were especially valuable during the 2012 rebuilding of Eastman, one of two upgrades at the center during her time there. The $5.1 million project doubled the size of the center to 14,000 square feet with reading and observation rooms, classrooms and an exhibit area and open-air deck for wildlife watching. The new building’s architecture links it to surrounding gardens and trails for walking, biking and cross-country skiing.
“Lee Ann helped with our internal review of the plans, working directly with the architects,” McDowell said. “The project had the least number of glitches that I can recall compared with others we’ve done. We had a good end product as a result of her attention to detail.”
“It was a thrill and an honor to help design the new building,” Landstrom said. “I love that it’s beautiful but at the same time functional. All the displays were custom-made by artists, so it’s completely unique.”
Eastman is one of three Three Rivers nature centers and is an especially popular venue for visitors from the west and north metro areas. It drew about 43,000 visitors last year, including school groups and participants in wildlife watching and educational programs.
The Three Rivers board recently recognized Landstrom for developing partnerships with area schools during her time at Eastman, including providing the center as a job-training site for special needs students and working with the Autism Society of Minnesota to offer summer camps.
Landstrom’s post-retirement plans reflect her ongoing love of nature. She’s looking forward to having more time to work in her garden in St. Louis Park, and for biking and bird-watching. She and a friend are going to Cuba, with plans to do some snorkeling and learn more about sea turtles.
Other plans include writing another in a series of “Nature’s Yucky” children’s books that Landstrom has co-authored with Karen Shragg, manager of Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield. They already have published three, using kids’ fascination with things that are smelly and gross to kindle interest in why animals behave as they do.
Landstrom said she’s also planning to visit Eastman from time to time.
“I’ll probably go up there once a month. I don’t want to bug them, but I want to keep track of what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful place. It’ll just feel nice to go there, hike around and see what’s different and what’s the same.”