Twenty years ago, a dedicated group of local educators, led by Norm Schoenthal, decided that Billings needed a year-round conservation education center. The Yellowstone River Parks Association had recently acquired what was once a gravel mine along the Yellowstone River corridor, and restoration work on the site had begun. Montana Audubon joined in the efforts in 2005, and in 2009 the Field Lab construction was complete. Since that time, the education programs have grown to serve more than 20,000 annual daily participants of all ages, and the landscape is much changed — supporting not only maturing cottonwoods, aspens, and junipers, but now chorus frogs and wood ducks and foxes and dragonflies and hundreds of Montana native species, all at the edge of the region’s largest city.
Here’s the full press release:
“The new Norm Schoenthal Field Lab is open for business at the Audubon Conservation Education Center (ACEC) in Billings!”
So went the announcement of the dedication of the Field Lab on October 17, 2009. Ten years later, Montana Audubon and the Yellowstone River Parks Association are celebrating with a birthday party on Saturday, July 20th from 3:00 – 6:00pm.
The idea of a conservation education facility in Billings had been around for a long time, a place to get children and families outside to learn about the animals, plants, and ecosystems of the area. What is now called the Montana Audubon Center was the culmination of the efforts of a number of organizations, including Montana Audubon, the Yellowstone River Parks Association, Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, and others. The work of all of these partners recognized that connecting kids to the natural world had important benefits to the kids and to nature both.
The Center now provides education programs to more than 20,000 daily visitors each year, including kids of all ages, families, and adults.
The location along South Billings Boulevard had been a gravel pit during repairs on Interstate 90 in the early 1990’s. The Yellowstone River Parks Association, having itself only recently been formed, acquired the property from the Long Family Trust in 1998. Through the leadership of Norm Schoenthal and others, volunteers began work to rehabilitate the landscape. From the beginning, the vision for the space was always a combination of native Montana plant communities and opportunities for youth engagement. Education was a priority from the beginning, not only via Norm in his own background as a professor for almost 30 years at Eastern Montana College, but also through the involvement especially of teachers Jean Smith, Dean Smith, and John Miller.
At the same time, Montana Audubon was in the process of identifying a location somewhere in the state to establish its first nature center. Audubon members were looking at a number of local properties, including the current Sundance Lodge Recreation Area, Riverfront Park, and Pompeys Pillar. In 2002, Audubon teamed up with YRPA on the current site, and over the next six years collectively raised more than $350,000 for the construction of a Wet Lab to serve as the headquarters for restoration, education, and research. Kathryn “Billie” Hicks of Yellowstone Valley Audubon, in addition to other significant contributions, made and sold peanut brittle to help fund the project. Other notable individuals from early on include YRPA members John Spencer, Earl Gus, and Sam and Mary Walter, and from Audubon both Paul Belanger and Robert Fitzgerald.
Since that time, both the programs and the landscape have matured. In the latter, the hundreds of volunteer-planted cottonwoods and junipers have grown into an oasis of riparian habitat on the urban edge of Billings. For the former, the Center’s education programs have become a core community asset locally as well as a model of conservation education in the region.