Great ideas for connecting kids and nature cross coffee tables every day, but few turn into 25-year institutions.

That’s why Wednesday’s celebration at the Montana Natural History Center stands out. The Missoula program that provides everything from butterfly nets to green-screen virtual field trips has its focus on the next quarter-century.

“It seemed such an obvious match for this area, to have a place where people could go to learn about nature, provide naturalists in schools, and field trips for adults and kids,” said Sue Reel, one of the MNHC’s founding members. “I was the Lolo National Forest wildlife interpreter and educator, and I had more requests for classroom talks and field trips than I could possibly meet.”

While setting up a wolf display at the Western Montana Fair in 1990, Reel, Pat Tucker and Bob Petty planted the idea of a stand-alone program that could provide those outdoors experiences. They started offering their first workshops for students and teachers in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness north of Missoula the following year. By fall 1991, they had an office in the University of Montana’s Jeannette Rankin Hall.

“Lots of Montanans go outside all the time and don’t think twice about it,” longtime MNHC board member Hank Fischer said. “But there’s a lot of people, kids in particular, who don’t have the opportunity to get outside and learn about nature. And the Legislature has done a good job of getting technology into a lot of rural schools, but they don’t have any programming.”

After years of developing in-class curriculum, field trip plans, and traveling trunks of animal skulls and other hands-on exhibits, the center has moved into the virtual reality world of lesson delivery. A special room in its permanent headquarters on Hickory Street has a full green-screen video setup for remote presentations.

“I get to interact as if I was in the classroom,” instructor Amy Howie said as she demonstrated the system. One video screen lets her see the students, while the other shows her superimposed over whatever background she wants to work with, just like a TV weathercaster in front of a storm map. The system can beam videos and slide shows from St. Regis to Colstrip.

In-town visitors can see examples of almost all of Montana’s important animals as well as many of the plants and insects that play major roles in its habitat. A recent partnership with Big Sky Brewery helped the center acquire three passenger buses for field trips. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people view the center’s exhibits, while another 10,000 attend its lectures, excursions and group tours.

“We’ve been largely a western Montana program for the first 25 years,” Fischer said. “We’re working hard to become a statewide organization. That’s what I anticipate in the next 25 years.”

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