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Think Cooperstown and you think baseball. Think Canton and pro football comes to mind.

“That’s what I think we’re trying to do here, create a center that is national,” Tim Love said Monday. “It’s like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. You go there and you realize it’s not about Missoula, it’s about North America.”

A core of believers has been trying to create a physical manifestation of the National Museum of Forest Service History in Missoula for years. So far roughly $4 million of the $9.5 million needed to begin construction of a 30,000-square-foot museum has been raised, while across town more than 36,000 artifacts, photos and documents are stored at a Forest Service repository on South Catlin Street.

Love, a retired forest ranger from Seeley Lake, was among more than a dozen invited guests who spent the morning trying to help jump-start the process. They met inside a conference room at the complex of Forest Service buildings between Missoula International Airport and the largely empty 36-acre museum site.

Some were retired from the Forest Service. Others included current and former educators, a high school junior, a backcountry outfitter, a poet, a grant writer, the museum’s newly hired first executive director and the head of Destination Missoula.

Google came to help.

Tawney Hughes, a Missoula Sentinel graduate and now the multinational technology company’s program manager for North and Latin America, led the group through a brainstorming and prototyping workshop.

“Basically this was an effort to develop innovative ideas on how to engage the community in the museum, how we can begin an education program on conservation history that would excite and attract adults and youths,” said Dave Stack, vice president of the museum and until a couple of weeks ago its executive director.

Turning ideas into solid concepts

Dozens of ideas were bandied about but under Hughes’ guidance they were culled into a handful of concepts.

One was to get the present museum grounds in exhibit condition and opened to the public before the museum is built. A bungalow cabin already on-site, which one day will display and interpret the life of a forest ranger and family, could be made for now into an exhibit hall to start showing off the museum’s artifacts. Lisa Tate, the museum’s new executive director and first full-time paid employee, said there’s plenty of room for a packing demonstration area, walking trails and the start of a nature playground with bug hotels and climbing logs.

“The idea would be to raise awareness to get people coming to the site and providing a tourist destination for what we already have,” Tate said.

Maria Bray, a business and technology teacher at Sentinel High, suggested creating virtual reality kits from existing technology that allows users to walk around with headsets and see, hear and smell forest experiences. Smartphone apps could be adapted to any area of the country.

As an immediate example, Cheryl Hughes, the museum’s new education coordinator, suggested that a user at the museum or elsewhere could don the headset, insert the smartphone and experience riding down a trail in the Bob Marshall on Smoke Elser’s pack horse.

A Caras Park event was recommended to engage the Missoula public. Cindy Schultz, also a Sentinel business teacher, said the popular downtown gathering area might be turned into a wilderness camp replete with wall tents, campfire activities, Carousel ponies bearing packs and a forest in Dragon’s Hollow for children to navigate for treasure or pleasure.

Elser, a master storyteller and noted packing instructor, presented a fundraising plan for the museum that he thinks could pay dividends in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

It would draw from the large number of Forest Service retirees and out-of-use Forest Service facilities in the area. Elser said 20 of them could be asked to invite a business or corporate executive on a five-day excursion to some place like the Powell Ranger Station in Idaho.

“We can fish, we can go to all the historic sites along the Lochsa, (and) personnel from the museum staff or board could discuss what the museum needs and what its goals are. We could sit around the campfire and encourage them to put money into it,” said Elser.

“As soon as we wrap up here we’re going to go start putting these ideas together,” said Tate, who returned to her hometown of Missoula at the start of August after years in nonprofit directorships across the country. “We’ll be looking at the feasibility of what it will take to move the museum forward.”

“I think we’ve got some good ideas,” Stack said. “It’s going to take some work to pull this together, but it’s a good start.”

He pointed to the large collection of catalogued artifacts already in hand, gathered over a period of nearly 30 years; the hiring of a full-time executive director, and the implementation of an education program for Montana teachers through a grant from the Library of Congress that will begin with a workshop in the Paradise Valley next May.

“We’ve done a lot of things,” Stack said. “We say that we are an operating museum.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian