Most people wish they could spend more time in the outdoors, but there are too many barriers stopping people: fear of getting lost, feeling unequipped, travel time, fear of bears, etc. For forty years, the Glacier Institute has been working to connect folks to the natural world through outdoor education with the aim of reducing those barriers. Now, looking to take their mission to the next level, the Glacier Institute wants to construct a nature center that creates experiences that are accessible, affordable, safe, and enriching for our community.
In 2021, during a strategic planning exercise, the Glacier Institute board of directors identified that a nature center somewhere between Columbia Falls and West Glacier would be extremely beneficial for the community. They added this goal in their 10-year strategic plan, and have been keeping an eye out for a potential site. “While we initially intended to pursue this more seriously in a few years,” says Anthony Nelson, executive director for the organization, “this opportunity fell into our lap and we will always regret it if we don’t try to make it happen.”
The opportunity Nelson refers to is a 142-acre parcel of land, just 1.4 miles east of the Flathead River on Hwy 2, just across from White Raven Winery. The property boasts beautifully landscaped ponds, waterfalls, hiking trails, pristine wetlands, and beautiful views. The plan would be to move the Glacier Institute office from their downtown Columbia Falls location to the house on the property, and begin developing plans for a future nature center building. “The land is a pristine habitat for elk, bear, birds, and beavers,” says Nelson, “we could be teaching programs on site immediately, as well as hosting our Guided Day Hikes that leave to go to Glacier National Park.”
Opportunity rarely knocks at a convenient time, and this is no different. The Institute is just wrapping up fundraising for a $1.7M project to restore Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, their first capital campaign.
As for the nature center, the Glacier Institute plans to have trails, medicinal gardens, indoor/outdoor classrooms, nature viewing boardwalks, even a small collection of native animals. “It aligns perfectly with our mission,” claims Josh Arrants, board president for the Glacier Institute, “the more people we are able to connect to the natural world, the more we are achieving our mission.”
This particular piece of land has been on and off the market for the past fifteen years. Most recently, it was proposed as a potential site for apartments and housing developments. The sale fell through when the proposal on a nearby 22-acre parcel connected to the sale was declined, which is when the Glacier Institute reached out to the landowners. “We are not an anti-development organization,” claims Nelson, “but this particular piece of land holds an incredibly high ecological value to a wide host of species. The community has already expressed an interest in preserving this land, we’re hoping to do it in a way that everyone can benefit from.”
Not only is the location ideal, but the sellers are very interested in seeing this plan come to fruition. They have offered the Institute a discount, accepted a contract based solely on being able to raise the funds in a short period of time, and have already offered an extension. “It’s really a green light/red light situation,” says Nelson, “either someone will step up to help us fund the project and the community will benefit immensely, or we will have to pass and keep waiting. Either way, we are giving it our best shot. We have to try.”
What does the Glacier Institute need? After the sale of their property in downtown Columbia Falls, they still need to raise $2.5M from the community. While they have been silently trying to find support for the last 30 days, they have not secured any pledges yet. They are hoping a few philanthropic members of our community will connect with the project and step up to provide the necessary funds.
Arrants, who is also fortunate enough to teach natural history classes for the Glacier Institute, recognizes the need for gathering places designed to educate and immerse people in the outdoors. “If we want future generations to appreciate the outdoors, we need to create more and better opportunities to directly connect them to nature,” says Arrants. “People care most about what they understand, which is why education, especially outdoor education, is at the core of our mission.”If you are interested in learning more about the nature center proposal, or making a contribution, please contact Anthony at (406)755-1211, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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