NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) announced that Terri Watson has been selected by the NOLS Board of Trustees to serve as the school’s sixth president. Watson will succeed John Gans who announced last November that he planned to step down after 24 years as president.
Marc Randolph, chair of the NOLS Board of Trustees, called Watson the ideal leader for NOLS as the school embarks on the next stage of its journey.
“Terri brings an extraordinary combination of professional experience, deep knowledge, and commitment to the NOLS mission,” said Randolph. “The Board found her passion for the school’s core values and potential contagious. We look forward to collaborating with Terri and guiding the school to future success under her leadership.”
Watson comes to NOLS with 28 years of corporate and nonprofit leadership experience. She currently holds the position of CEO at LightHawk, a national nonprofit based in Colorado, that supports significant conservation initiatives with a network of volunteer pilots and aircrafts to advance environmental causes. Watson started as a volunteer pilot at LightHawk in 1997, later becoming a board member and holding a number of management positions before taking the CEO role in 2015.
Under Watson’s vision and leadership, LightHawk rebuilt its business model to focus on longer-term collaborative projects with significant conservation outcomes. The organization leverages a network of 300 volunteer pilots serving 282 missions annually in support of 121 conservation partners. From the transportation of endangered species to collecting data through surveys and aerial photography, LightHawk provides unique conservation expertise in using aircrafts to achieve important outcomes for organizations without that expertise or ability to afford flight services.
In addition to her 23-year history at LightHawk, Watson served as executive director of the Pearl Harbor Institute of Pacific Historic Parks and The Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association in San Francisco. She has also served in numerous consulting roles to nonprofits, federal resource agencies, and small businesses. Her extensive nonprofit leadership background along with hands-on international experience set her apart from the search field. Watson’s track record for growth and turn-around achievements in past roles also contributed to her selection by the Board.
“I could not be more excited to welcome Terri back to NOLS in this capacity,” said Gans. “It’s an exceptional occasion for many reasons. Terri is the first woman to lead the school. She is taking the helm of an organization that is an economic and educational force in the state of Wyoming and a thought-leader within the outdoor education industry. Terri is an ardent supporter of conservation and public lands, two critical priorities for the school’s future success and priorities close to my heart.”
Watson started her NOLS journey as an instructor in 1990. At the time, she was the founder and owner of Lander-based Winds Aloft Aviation, Inc. which conducted natural resource management flights across the Rocky Mountain states in support of federal and state agencies. Her work included on-demand airplane charter, EMS helicopter pilot services for the Wyoming Medical Center, support for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the Northern Rockies, and risk management consulting.
In 1996, Watson took the reins as director of NOLS Southwest located in Tucson, AZ where she managed a staff of nine and oversaw over 40 instructors. She became a NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructor in 1999 and continues to teach a few courses each year.
Prior to NOLS, Watson served in the U.S. Army in active duty service from 1985 to 1990 as well as active and reserve service from 1990 to 1997. She held a number of command and leadership roles as an aviation intelligence officer.
“I tell everyone that the military taught me to fly and tackle audacious goals with confidence, but NOLS truly taught me how to create a team who can make amazing things happen,” said Watson. “NOLS was foundational in my career trajectory and to have this opportunity to lead the school into its future is such an honor.”
Watson earned a B.S. in Geology and Physical Education from The College of William and Mary in 1985 and completed a M.S. in Computer Information Systems from the University of Southern California in 1989. In 2013, Watson went on to receive an MBA from the University of Wyoming.
Speaking after her selection, Watson said, “I truly cannot express my excitement for rejoining an organization that transforms the lives of our students. A NOLS experience helps our students gain a profound and practical sense of working with others to achieve big goals. For many, their student experience is life-changing. As we look to the future, I am excited to work with our incredibly talented community to reach new audiences around the world. NOLS is the leader in wilderness education, and I am incredibly honored at the opportunity to lead the organization towards bold new endeavors.”
Terri and her family are excited to return to Wyoming and call Lander home again.
The selection of Watson concludes a global search launched earlier this year. The comprehensive search process involved rigorous consultation with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and others having valuable perspectives on NOLS, wilderness education, conservation, and the outdoor industry.
“One of our greatest strengths as a school is our engaged and passionate community of instructors and staff around the world. The involvement and buy-in of so many diverse stakeholders throughout the search process reinforced the importance of this selection,” said Ari Hertz, interim director of NOLS Three Peaks, faculty member, and presidential search committee member. “For me, Terri’s lived experience in our history and her background in school-wide operations, wilderness medicine instruction, and expedition field courses made her the strongest candidate for the role.”
“The search committee believes that she has the proven ability to push the school’s boundaries and identify new opportunities and challenges that we might not even know we need yet,” continued Hertz. “Her understanding of our strengths and needs as a school, and her ability to combine on-the-ground action with high-level planning will help us even more fully realize our values and mission in years to come.”
NOLS, a Wyoming-based nonprofit school, grew from 43 students in its inaugural year to serving 28,363 last year, evolving into a premier wilderness education school with 800 active instructors, operating 16 campuses around the world, and providing classroom instruction in over 40 countries. Today, the school awards $1.9M in scholarships and offers more than 350 unique courses annually specializing in extended wilderness expeditions, classroom-based wilderness medicine and risk management courses, and custom expeditions for organizations.