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Mike Schiller: Proving there's plenty to do outdoors in Western Pennsylvania

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Mike Schiller started the outdoor adventure that is the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute, he didn't map out an easy route.

He smiles and says, "We are, in our own limited fashion, trying to change the culture of the region" so people better appreciate and use its abundant outdoor amenities.

Mike Schiller: "One could argue that I've found my life's work." (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Schiller knows it's going to be a long haul, but already the non-profit Field Institute has made big strides, even though it didn't start offering regular programs until September.

Some outings, such as its Monday night sea kayak eco-tours, mostly filled up, the executive director reports. "I think we were totally successful at proving the concept."

Now the group is building on that, having hired, in addition to a program director, an office manager and an information director. They accomplished another piece of the mission -- to become the region's outdoors clearinghouse -- by adding to their improved Web site, www.wpfi.org, the beginnings of a master list of all outdoor groups, with which WPFI will work closely.

Next season's full schedule of classes and outings is being posted. Meanwhile, Schiller and company are starting relationships with target groups such as the young professionals of PUMP (Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project). The two groups recently announced a partnership that adds an "Expeditions" component to PUMP's Pittsburgh Sports League. It starts Jan. 20 with a cross-country skiing trip.

Schiller also is working with groups including the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau to get attractions such as the Laurel Highlands trails featured in publications touting the region.

This "outdoorsification" is what Schiller envisioned when he applied for, and got, a $250,000 two-year grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to start the group.

The Mt. Lebanon resident, 41, is a lifelong outdoorsman, but he started to get more serious about it in 1997 after selling his part of the software company he helped start. It was a 24-day National Outdoor Leadership School trip in Alaska that made him want to share the powerful possibilities of outdoor experiences.

Even -- that's right -- in Pittsburgh, which for various reasons doesn't get enough credit for its many trails, rivers, mountains and other natural wonders.

Schiller is thrilled to already see "things changing and happening and people responding," and says, without wanting to sound schmaltzy, "One could argue that I've found my life's work."

He likes to tell the story of one happy WPFI participant who printed out the master list of outdoor groups and plopped it on a friend as proof that "there's no excuse" that there's nothing to do here.

"That's exactly the message we're trying to sell."

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