Jory Macomber will begin his role as executive director of Moab’s Canyonlands Field Institute on Dec. 1, taking over the role from CFI founder Karla VanderZanden. [Photo: Canyonlands Field Institute]

“Outdoor education lives and breathes in my heart,” said Jory Macomber.

Looking at his life and career path, the force of that passion is clear.

Macomber will begin his role as executive director of Moab’s Canyonlands Field Institute on Dec. 1, taking over the role from CFI founder Karla VanderZanden.

“[VanderZanden] built CFI into an educational institution and not just an outfitter — that education is at the crux of our mission is her vision,” Macomber said.

VanderZanden and Robin Wilson founded CFI in 1984 to promote and provide outdoor education on the Colorado Plateau to children and adults. The nonprofit organization offers hikes, seminars, river trips and other programs from its Professor Valley Field Camp, drawing in over 5,000 participants annually.

VanderZanden served as CFI’s executive director until July of this year, when Interim Executive Director Kate Niedehere took over while the organization’s Board of Directors pored over potential replacements.

“We had a great pool of candidates and it was a hard decision-making process,” Niedehere said.

She expressed excitement at what Macomber will bring to the organization

Macomber has a wealth of experience in outdoor education and has master’s degrees in teaching and education from Brown University. As a student, he led freshman orientation trips through the outdoors during college.

He directed the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont and worked as a teacher and as Dean of Faculty at Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for 20 years. At Holderness, Macomber created a year-long outdoor curriculum for students and led the school’s Outback program, a 10-day winter camping trip for high school juniors to teach ecology, wilderness expedition skills, teamwork, leadership, and decision-making in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

“I’m really excited that [Macomber] has experience of being head of a school and knows what it’s like to be a parent,” Niedehere said. “I think those attributes are going to help him excel in the role.”

Before moving to Moab, Macomber worked at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah where he helped pioneer an arts and nature experience with the Swaner Nature Preserve and EcoCenter.

“I’ve been an educator my whole life, and the most memorable and the most intense teaching experiences that I’ve had have always been outdoor education,” Macomber reflected. “That’s what drew me here.”

Like many other organizations and businesses, CFI has struggled since the COVID-19 pandemic began. CFI generates most of its revenue from leading outdoor school trips, so when local schools shuttered, Niedehere reported that the organization experienced $200,000 in revenue loss.

To adapt, CFI revised their usual overnight summer camping programs into day-long camps for locals. CFI does not offer any programming during the winter months but will begin staff training in March. Depending on the state of the pandemic, Macomber hopes to launch regular activities from April through October of next year.

“We just purchased the Castle Rock Ranch, so that gives us the chance to grow our program in some really interesting ways,” he said. “We can be more residential and broaden our programs.”

But first on Macomber’s agenda is to focus on the organization’s staff. The nonprofit is down three staff members due to the pandemic, and the new executive director wants to utilize the winter to build rapport with the existing staff before onboarding new personnel.

“I want to create some company goals as a group,” said Macomber. “What do we need? Where does the staff want to grow? Everyone has different directions they want to go in.”

Further down the road, Macomber hopes to create a multi-year outdoor education program where students will progress in their knowledge throughout their involvement.

“It could be multidisciplinary — rivers, desert, art, geology — and we can bring that all into one program,” he said.

As a history and English teacher himself, Macomber looks forward to exploring the history, natural resources and geology around Moab and the Colorado Plateau.

“I have a lot to learn. I am a learner, and I hope I can create that culture in the organization, that we’re always learning,” he continued.

Along with his wealth of outdoor education experience, Niedehere and the CFI Board of Directors were excited by Macomber’s skills in fundraising and management.

“I always say that fundraising is a contact sport,” Macomber quipped. “You have to go see donors and find out what their interests are to see where you intersect.”

He hopes to focus on school programs as the main driver of the organization and then eventually focus on more business-to-business marketing.

“In our first year, since I’ve never lived in Moab, a big part of what I do will be meeting our supporters and bringing new people in. I want to expand our base of support,” he said.

Since moving to Moab, Macomber and his wife, Martha, the Educational Coordinator for the Ute Tribe at the University of Utah, have tried their hands at canyoneering and look forward to skiing in the La Sals this winter.

“I invite the community to welcome Jory,” Niedehere said. “We need the support of the community to make these new efforts happen — we want to continue to serve our local schools and ensure that every kid has the opportunity to get to know the landscape where they live.”

With the winter ahead, Macomber and his new staff will prepare for the new, perhaps socially distanced future of outdoor education.

A change in leadership, Niedehere noted, may be well-suited for these pandemic times.

“There are changes coming down the horizon, and we hope people are inspired to be engaged and to let us know how we can best help,” she concluded.

Macomber, in starting this new position, says he is taking CFI’s mission statement to heart: “We want you to understand the land better so that when you leave, you can be a better caretaker and have your own spirit renewed.”

New director takes helm from nonprofit’s founder