A Tried-and-True Medium: Grass River Natural Area Engages Audiences by Publishing Books

By James Dake
Education Director, 
Grass River Natural Area



Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Directions, the ANCA journal. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.


Nature Centers are always on the lookout for new ways to provide services, creative methods to share interpretive media, and resourceful ways to bring in revenue while still meeting their mission. One way to do that is through publications. 

“Books?” you may say. “How are books in any way new or creative? Why not apps?” 

While the act of creating and printing books is nothing new, technology has advanced in a way that allows for small nonprofits, like nature centers, to step more easily into the realm of publishing. You can now design your publications in-house, print the books in small quantities with a very quick turnaround time, and get high-quality publications into the hands of your visitors without going through a large publishing company.  Being your own publisher opens up a wide range of avenues to create some impactful and eye-catching interpretive media. 

And, people still have a deep love for books. Print is certainly not dead in today’s digital world.

Field Guide to Northwest MichiganGrass River Natural Area in Bellaire, Michigan became a publisher in 2016, with the publication of our first book, “Field Guide to Northwest Michigan.” This 152-page book includes a little bit of everything. With chapters on local history and geology, along with full-color photography sections of over 400 species of local flora and fauna, a visitor to the natural area can get the big picture of our organization’s history and mission, while also being able to identify the bug they just saw once they stepped out the door or the toad their child just picked up. The guide is easy to use for beginners, but full of information for nature enthusiasts.

This meets our mission by educating visitors about the plants and animals right in our backyard, while also generating revenue. We sell the book in our gift shop in the nature center, as well as many of the local bookstores. For many weeks in a row, the guide has been a number one bestseller in one of our local bookstores. 

Even better yet, the book was supported by our local community foundation and energy company through grants, which helped to cover the printing costs. These grants also included books being donated to classrooms in local schools to be used as a local science textbook. Since its publication, there are now over 2,800 copies in circulation, with over 650 in the hands of students and teachers. In the coming months, we will be printing over 2,000 additional copies of an updated and revised 2nd edition.

Shortly after publishing the book, we were approached by a long-term volunteer, board member, and donor to our organization. She had been working on a wetland wildflower book for years but had yet to navigate the world of publishing. “Would it be possible for Grass River to publish my book?” she asked. 

GLWW COVERWhat better way to meet our mission and engage our supporters, than to publish a book on wetland wildflowers written by a local naturalist that had been with our organization since its early years? So, in 2019, we published “Great Lakes Wetland Walks” by Peg Comfort. This spiral-bound wetland wildflower guide combined the writing of the author, with cover artwork by a locally known artist, botanical sketches from another artist, a foreword by a well-known local author, and photography from Grass River. We laid out the book, provided the photos, secured grant funding for printing, and worked with the printer to get it in print. We now sell it and distribute it throughout the region.

Our next project is working with another nature center in Michigan to create a field guide for their nature center and region. In this instance, we are providing a service that we have expertise in to another nature center, and in the end we will get an accessible nature guide into the hands of more people throughout the state. 

People love books. And, the technology is there for nature centers to create the books that people love. So get publishing!


James Dake is author of “Field Guide to Northwest Michigan” and education director at Grass River Natural Area in Bellaire, Michigan. Check out Grass River’s publications here or contact James at if you have questions about creating your own books.


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