OGDEN -- Susan Snyder would like you to consider the word "ecosystem" for a minute.
It doesn't just mean the plants, animals and bugs that live in a natural area such as a river or mountain meadow, she said. "Ecos" means home. "System" is a group of relationships.
"An ecosystem can be a river, but it also can be your community or neighborhood," Snyder said. "I would like us all to consider the relationships that compose our collective ecosystems and strive to make them as healthy as they can be."
That's just the beginning of advice from the award-winning teacher and naturalist at Ogden Nature Center.
Snyder has taught thousands of children and adults about the outdoor world around them when they visit the nature center. Her knowledge and expertise not only make her a valuable asset to the organization, but her enthusiasm keeps guests coming back time and time again, said Brandi Bosworth, public relations coordinator at the Ogden Nature Center.
Snyder's work and dedication earned her the 2011 Vern A. Fridley Environmental Educator of the Year Award, which was presented during the Utah Society for Environmental Education's annual conference.
"If you have ever listened to Susan teach, you immediately understand why she was selected for this honor," Bosworth said. "Susan's creativity and youthful spirit shine through in her teaching approach. She truly loves her job and loves what she is teaching. Her enthusiasm is genuine, and that makes her attitude very contagious."
Snyder actually began her career as a newspaper reporter for the Clearwater Sun, then moved on to The Tampa Tribune, the Standard-Examiner and the Las Vegas Sun.
In Nevada she worked as a volunteer naturalist and hike leader for Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. That experience, coupled with writing about policy decisions affecting the West, guided her to her current job teaching about nature.
Snyder said she loves everything about her job and can't pick any one favorite thing, especially when it comes to the classes she teaches: "Seriously, I don't have a favorite. I do enjoy anything that gets kids out there touching bugs, pond algae or other stuff they normally would consider gross and finding something cool about it."
Although Snyder can't pick a favorite class, she does have "thousands" of fond memories.
"One happened during a summer campout we hosted for families. One of the families had never been camping," she said. "Watching the two young girls laughing and singing silly camp songs while eating s'mores in the glow of the campfire was one of my best days at work. So many of us take that kind of experience for granted, but they were nearly breathless with the excitement."
Another memory reminds Snyder what a rare and wild place the Ogden Nature Center really is. A couple of years ago, she said, she and the center's wildlife biologist, Melissa Robinson, took a hike around the trails. It was just after the snow had begun to melt in late February, and there were a lot of obscured paths and huge, pond-like puddles.
"Somehow we managed to get stranded in the middle of one of these seasonal ponds and had to pull off our boots and socks, roll up our pants and wade knee-deep in freezing water to get out with who knows what gooshing up between our toes," she said. "We have many deer at the center and well, they leave all kinds of goodies behind. It was hilarious. We could not figure out how to get back to our trail. How many places in the heart of the city can you go and still have a wild experience like that?"
Snyder was born and raised in Muncie, Ind., and moved to the Tampa Bay area after high school. She graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and earned a master's degree in ecological teaching and learning from Lesley University. She and her partner, Doug, share a household with 13 bicycles, four sets of skis, two sets of snowshoes and one "very silly" tuxedo cat named Boots.
Regarding the award, Snyder said she is honored beyond words.
"People are nominated for the award by their peers, so just being considered was an amazing honor," she said.
Snyder said she would love to see even more people visit the Ogden Nature Center, which she said gets better with age.
"As Utah's oldest and first nature center, we have a lot to offer people through community programs or just wandering around trying to see the chorus frogs that call in the spring," she said. "If you haven't been here since you were a kid, come back. We miss you."