Nonprofit Glacier Institute Launches ‘Restoration’ Campaign

Capital campaign builds on $1.1 million already secured from donors including SPP’s Benji Griffith and Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook; project aims to restore historic outdoor education center up the North Fork

By Tristan Scott
Glacier Institute's spring wildflower class. Beacon file photo

Postgraduate students of the outdoors will already understand why the Flathead Valley ranks so high in the geographic canon of Mother Nature’s most influential works, but teachers on a mission to reach a whole new freshman class are celebrating after the Glacier Institute announced its first major fundraising initiative last month.

“Restoration Big Creek” is a $1.7 million fundraising campaign to secure the future of the Glacier Institute and expand its programs by renovating Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, a historic forest ranger station that is the home base for the institute’s camps and courses for youth and local schools. The institute has already secured $1.1 million in support. An additional $600,000 is needed to complete a long list of projects at Big Creek.

Founded in 1983, the Glacier Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Columbia Falls with a mission to strengthen connections to the natural world through outdoor education. As the official educational partner of Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest, they offer programs for children, families, and adults, including educational guided day hikes, field courses, camps, and field trips.

“Big Creek is legendary in the Flathead Valley,” said Anthony Nelson, executive director of the Glacier Institute. “There are countless stories of kids who have never stepped foot in the woods coming to experience a fully immersive camp experience in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and walking away with a new respect for the natural world.”

Each year, over 1,500 children participate in the Glacier Institute’s courses, ranging from animal tracking and orienteering to fly fishing and snow science. Most of these youth programs take place at the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, located up the North Fork of the Flathead River. 

“Big Creek is the heart of all our youth initiatives,” said Nelson. “We are cultivating the next generation of environmental stewards. Without experiences in the outdoors, kids just won’t understand or care about it.”

To date, over 35,000 kids have participated in Big Creek programs and camps. This off-the-grid, historic site boasts buildings that were constructed in the early 1920s.

 “The story of Big Creek dates back to 1911 when it started as a ranger station,” according to Nelson. “I never get tired of hearing the stories of when hundreds of people ate from the mess hall each morning.”

However, this legacy comes with decades of wear and tear that has left the buildings and the grounds in dire need of repair. After a full assessment, the Glacier Institute identified a long list of needs including a new foundation underneath the mess hall building, removing asbestos floors and ceilings, replacing all windows and doors, and installing a new septic system.

Plans also call for reclaiming the back shop and preparing it for sustainable carpentry courses, creating ADA accessible bathrooms in guest and staff cabins, expanding the solar power capacity for 90% solar dependency, preparing the site for year-round camps, and modernizing all plumbing and electrical. 

“We have a lot of plans to meet the growing demand for our camps and courses,” Nelson said. “But first, we need to make sure Big Creek can rise to the occasion.”

The total cost of renovations is $1.7 million, more than the institute can afford on its own.

Enter a community of individuals, businesses, and grant-makers who believe in the institute’s work. Already, $1.1 million has been given in gifts, services, and supplies from dozens of individuals, businesses and foundations.

Key leadership gifts include $200,000 from Benji Griffith, the founder of Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations, which in 2020 acquired 630,000 acres of former Weyerhaeuser land in northwest Montana, as well as $50,000 in gifts from Chris and Monica Graff, Bob and Pat Jepsen, Bill Smith, and Connie Lane. Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., has also supported the effort, personally donating $100,000 after learning about the need while enjoying a personalized educational tour with Nelson during a recent trip to Glacier National Park.

“Every gift is a testament to a broad-based belief in the Glacier Institute, in Big Creek, and in the life-changing experiences kids have there,” said Nelson. “Every dollar ensures we can continue pushing towards our mission on an even bigger scale.”

Due to the early generosity, several key renovations are already complete, Nelson said, with more planned for this fall and next spring. Once renovations are complete, the Glacier Institute plans to expand by hosting more kids and more programs at Big Creek, and by offering programs all year round.

“That growth and our future both depend on completing the work at Big Creek,” said Nelson. “And completing the work depends on the generosity of our community.”

To learn more or to support the Glacier Institute, visit https://glacierinstitute.org or call (406) 755-1211.