Remembering Craig Tufts, NWF’s Chief Naturalist

The National Wildlife Federation this week is mourning the loss of our chief naturalist, Craig Tufts, who passed away June 21 at the age of 62.

It is hard to find the words to express how much Craig’s presence will be deeply missed around the National Wildlife Federation’s headquarters and throughout the NWF family. Craig embodied the very essence of the National Wildlife Federation, connecting countless people with nature and inspiring the creation and protection of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in backyards and communities across the country.

During his nearly 33-year career with NWF, he helped lead the development and expansion of the Certified Wildlife Habitat® program, authored The Backyard Naturalist and (with Peter Loewer) The National Wildlife Federation’s Guide to Gardening for Wildlife, and also led nature and gardening courses at 25 NWF Summits, to name just a few of his accomplishments. Craig was the person we went to with any questions about plants, insects, birds or other wildlife species we wanted to identify or know something about. His love for nature inspired so many, and his patience and general desire to teach people about wildlife was beautiful.

Craig made learning about wildlife fun. He could turn what seemed like the most trivial leaf into an incredibly interesting and complicated subject. He inspired people to look at the world around them with new eyes and notice how intricate and meaningful nature is, whether it is the most basic leaf or rarest bird.

In honor of Craig and his family’s wishes, the National Wildlife Federation has established the Craig Tufts Volunteer Education Fund to recognize individuals who share his passion for understanding, appreciating and connecting others with the natural world. Learn more…

Remembering Craig…

Below is a collection of memories and personal thoughts from a few of the many members of NWF’s staff and volunteer corps who were touched by Craig. We would like to invite all other staff, volunteers, and anyone else who knew Craig to share a story, memory or thought by posting a comment at the end of this blog.

Ellen Lambeth, Executive Editor, Ranger Rick
Who was Craig Tufts? He was certainly a man of many graces and abilities. But the one thing that stands out for me is that he was the person you sought when you had a nature question–ANY nature question. The reason you’d go to Craig is that you knew he’d be the one with an answer. (If, by some strange twist, Craig might actually NOT know the answer to your question off the top of his head, he would carry you along with him in the search for it.) And it was always evident how clearly happy he was to give you the answer, no matter how simple the question might have seemed to him or how many times he might have answered it before. Then he’d tell you something else fun or fascinating about the subject of the question. And he would make it all seem so new and fresh and alive that you’d want to find out even MORE about it. You never felt that any question was too trivial or too dumb, because EVERYthing in the natural world–the commonplace as well as the rare–simply amazed Craig.

The problem is that I have so many more nature questions to ask Craig–a never-ending supply, since something in the natural world piques my curiosity every single day–but can no longer take the easy path by just asking Craig. Now I must find my own way to follow his lead. Strangely, I feel both emboldened and daunted by the task–emboldened because this is the legacy Craig leaves to all of us and daunted because few of us could ever measure up to his capacity and thirst for knowledge.

It almost seems too glib to say simply that I will miss Craig–but I simply will.

Greg Oskay, Volunteer
Even though I only met Craig once, I thought of him often. Back in the ’90s he visited Indianapolis and toured my backyard habitat. I pointed out a Catalpa sapling that came up voluntarily in the yard. I said that I was going to let it grow until it started to compete with the surrounding trees and then cut it for firewood since in my opinion it did not have any wildlife value. He told me about how it would get Catalpa Worms on it (larval stage of Catalpa Sphinx Moth) and birds loved to eat them. As a result, the tree got a reprieve. It is now over 20 inches in diameter and about 60 feet tall. Often, when I see that tree, it brings back memories of Craig’s visit. Craig will certainly be missed by Backyard Habitat enthusiasts all across this country.

Laura Hickey, Senior Director, Eco-Schools USA and Global Warming Education
I started at NWF in 1986. One of my jobs was to work with NWF staff to coordinate the publishing of three books per year. One of these was The Backyard Naturalist by Craig, which was published in 1988. At that time, my husband and I had just bought our first home and we were novice gardeners at best. I took my complimentary copy of The Backyard Naturalist home with me, and it transformed the way that I viewed and cared for my garden. Before that book, I just liked my garden and sometimes resented the time it took to care for it; after reading Craig’s book, I loved my garden and could see the potential that it had for being an oasis for wildlife, my husband and me.

Late last summer, I was lucky enough to be able to give Craig a ride home after his wife Jean had dropped him off for a noon nature walk that he led every other week at NWF’s headquarters in Reston. I valued that one-on-one time with him greatly. When we got to his house, we took a walk around his garden, and I marveled aloud at all the different things growing, some of which I had never seen before. Craig promptly went into the house, got a little seed collection envelope, filled it with seeds and wrote the Latin and English names of the species, telling me when to plant it. Always giving, of his time, his knowledge, and his heart. I will miss my dear friend greatly, but always be grateful for the friendship we shared these past 23 years.

Cindy Wiles, Volunteer
This is indeed sad news, my thoughts and prayers go out to all of you at NWF and to his family. I remember how helpful he was when I became a habitat steward so many years ago. He was a role model and an inspiration to all of us.

I’m currently working as a docent at the live butterfly pavilion at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a direct result of my habitat steward training and continuing commitments to volunteer on behalf of NWF. It’s a really great experience, and I look forward to coming over to your offices one of these days to tell you more about it.

I want you to know that I frequently think of how significant the NWF’s Backyard Habitat program has been in my life, and I thank you.

Dave Strauss, Vice President, Direct Marketing and Constituent Operations Membership
Over the past 15 years, I have had the good fortune to run thousands of miles with Craig. As we ran, I was always the one looking at my watch, making sure we were keeping pace, driving us to meet our goals. Craig on the other hand was always captivated by his surroundings and spent much of his time observing the great outdoors. I am sure those long runs went by so much faster for Craig because he was living two passions at once–running and nature.

I remember one run in particular. We were on a training run through the Snickers Gap portion of the Appalachian Trail. It was a 20 mile up-and-back through hilly trails. About half way to the turning point, Craig stops dead in his tracks. I turned around and he was glowing with excitement. He bent down and picked up some sort of cone. I, being the nature novice, thought it was interesting and was ready to move on. However, Craig started to search for more of these cones and began looking at all of the trees in the area. It was our good fortune and Craig’s extensive knowledge of the great outdoors that we found several rare American elm trees and cones. We then spent 20 minutes picking up as many cones as we could handle and brought them back so Craig could later plant them. This experience reminded me of a kid in a candy store. The pure pleasure Craig got from being outside was captured in this moment.

He was an amazing man–not only for his love of nature, but for his love of people. I am so thankful and honored to have spent time with such a giving and sincere person.

He will be missed.

Kelly Senser, Senior Associate Editor, National Wildlife
Backyard birds amaze my four-year-old son. No matter if it’s the tenth American robin he’s seen in a day or a species he’s discovering for the first time, he’s equally fascinated–and eager to share the experience. Such makes me smile and stirs warm visions of Craig at a time when I welcome the comfort. Craig carried his own childhood sense of wonder into adulthood and helped me and countless others connect with nature’s joys. Though he died, I know he will be forever present in my daughter’s schoolyard habitat, my son’s enthusiastic love of wildlife…. Because he shared the outdoors, I’m sharing. I’m grateful for the inspiration. Indeed, the gift.

Frances Neuhards, Volunteer
I have been thinking of Craig lately and had in mind to call or email the question to ask if he had retired. Craig was such an inspiration. I met him in fall of 1999, immediately after my retirement and during the Habitat Stewards classes. Ebenezer was beginning the second building program and County required to plant X number and types of plants.  During those classes my dream of a beautiful native planting campus was given hope. I went out to visit the church garden which Craig had been the facilitator and was able to work toward the landscape Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford has today–Today that landscape is far beyond what I started out wanting. The Natives give four season interest and beauty, the Butterfly Garden is loved by so many and used by childrens groups very frequently–the several 3/4 year Preschool classes just this spring grew and released Painted Lady butterflies there. The Retention Pond Run-Off has been treated as a little stream and provides water for animals (seen at times), with an out door room developed by an Eagle Scout (in fact the last project needed on the property is happening the first part of July, bringing to a total of four Eagle Scout candidates putting in Nature Trails, “stream” improvement to look natural). The best thing is the opportunity to teach children and young people–often I have Community Service need youth–court, service for mission or college and….!

Ebenezer’s landscape would not be as it is, had I not met Craig and Jean. I am so grateful to have known him and benefited from his interest and commitment. I am so sad about his death and send my regrets and love and admiration for his life and Jean’s as I know their work!! They made a difference in my life.

Libby Schleichert, Senior Editor, Ranger Rick
Every once in a rare while, a person comes along in our lives who is so filled with joy and love that they light up the world around them. People like this seem to have few issues and are at peace with who they are. They are filled with the sheer wonder of being alive. Others just feel better in the presence of such people and find the best in themselves being drawn out. Such a person touches lives and is blessed with many friends.

I was a friend to just such a soul, Craig Tufts, the naturalist for nearly 33 years at National Wildlife Federation.

But such a light is too bright to be dimmed. He is everywhere in the call of the birds, nearly all of which he knew by heart, and in the glint of sun gilding the morning treetops, and in every perfect petal of the wild clumps of red clover along the roadside. Such a soul cannot be dimmed by death for he has touched too many hearts, inspired too many people.

Such a soul is not easily forgotten. May this one soul be at peace knowing how he did truly light up the universe.


Washington Post: Naturalist Who Promoted Back Yard Havens Dies