Wild Rockies Field Institute

WRFI History

The Wild Rockies Field Institute was founded in 1993 by three then-recent graduates of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program (EVST), who felt that education about ecological processes and relationships, as well as land management policy and human relationships with the land, could be more deeply and honestly explored on site, in the field. According to one of WRFI’s co-founders, Dave Havlick, to write about the organization’s early days, he provided the following account:

After finishing our master’s degrees in science, Tim Bechtold, Matt Thomas, and I entered into an array of projects – teaching courses for EVST, leading wilderness-based trips for troubled teens, and working for local conservation organizations, among other things.

As grad students at the University of Montana, we had each taught courses in the English Department and/or Environmental Studies Program. After working for a couple years off and on with troubled teens in wilderness programs, we started to talk amongst ourselves about the merits of field-based expeditions and how these could be adapted to complement the traditional college curriculum.

Matt and I were interested in  running a semester-length course through the University of Montana’s Extended Studies Program that would offer students the chance to sea kayak for several hundred miles down the Baja coast of the Sea of Cortez. When we mentioned our plan to Tim, he suggested we think bigger and go ahead and start a non-profit organization dedicated to field-based education. Matt and I thought it a swell idea, so we dove headlong into the roiling surf of the start-up.

Tim had recently founded the Ecology Center in Missoula with Bill Haskins, so he knew how to do all the paperwork to incorporate. In September 1993 the three of us met for our first board meeting as the Wild Rockies Field Institute, and that same month we registered the group’s name with the State of Montana and the IRS. An artist friend, Suzanne Truman, contributed the shooting star logo (and later, the t-shirt design).

Our goals were both simple and expansive:

  • we wanted to provide a different kind of college experience that connected students directly to places and an array people;
  • we wanted to combine rigorous academic courses, extended expeditions, and a high degree of professionalism as outdoor leaders;
  • we sought to create a model for a non-profit organization that would minimize bureaucracy and allow motivated, qualified instructors to generate and lead field-based courses;
  • and we wanted to integrate our lives as conservation activists with our interests in teaching. We also wanted to work outside and further explore the wild places that we loved.

As it turned out, the three of us who started WRFI brought a nice mix of qualities together. Tim had the vision and the knowledge for how to make an organization that could outlast our individual ambitions to teach particular courses. Matt had a boundless interest in teaching in the field – at one stretch he taught nearly 100 days straight in Baja, Texas, and Utah. I was dogged enough to manage the office operations, run course proposals through the University of Montana, and to discipline the occasionally wayward student or instructor. For the first five years or so, we formalized these roles: Tim as WRFI’s secretary/treasurer, Matt as vice-president, and me as president/director.

By Fall 1993, we had received approval through EVST to offer college credits for a “Literature and Ecology of Baja California” course, which still runs to this day. We made a poster to market our offerings to students, hoping to run the Baja course during the winter of 1993-94. We also listed a course in the Atchafalaya basin in Louisiana, where Matt had spent some time during his Coast Guard days, and a summer sea kayak course in southeast Alaska, where both Tim and I had spent some time.

The Alaska course attracted some interest and by April 1994 it was clear we’d have enough students – seven – to run it. The trip, our first, was a grand success – six students completed the course, led by Tim and I, from Ketchikan to the LeConte Glacier and back to Wrangell via the Stikine Narrows.

Our spirits buoyed up by success, we made another poster that summer. With a much-revised Baja plan, we signed up enough students to run two, three-week courses based out of Loreto in December 1994 and January 1995. Gabi Barrett, Woody Beardsley and I drove the trailer of sea kayaks down to Baja. Gabi and I taught the course (four students, all women), while Woody greased the locals for a base camp and mid-course panga-load of supplies. For the January 1995 course, Gabi, Matt and Tim taught a full crew of 11 students.

1995 proved to be WRFI’s breakout year. We ran seven courses, employed nine instructors, and attracted about 60 students. In addition to the courses I’ve already described, that first full year of WRFI included:

  • Doug Hawes-Davis and Jason Halbert in the Ozarks;
  • Gabi Barrett and Shelley in Hawaii;
  • Matt, Tim, and I teaching winter ecology;
  • Tim, Jennifer Ferenstein, and I north to Alaska;
  • Matt Sanger and Gabi Barrett in Yellowstone;
  • and Matt Thomas, Bethanie Walder, Doug Hawes-Davis, Jeannie Alderson, and I on Montana Afoot & Afloat.

One of the strengths of WRFI’s instructor pool and another aspect that distinguished the organization from those with similar offerings, was (and still is, I think) that most all of us taught only part-time, while working in related professions the rest of the time. This made us far more informed about and connected to the issues than many other college-level instructors of public lands issues.

Around 1995 we also expanded our Board of Directors. Tom Roy from the EVST program was a reliable ally throughout our early days, and the folks at Extended Studies were consistently supportive and cooperative as well.

By 1997 WRFI had outgrown my living room, so we rented an office in the grain elevator complex on the West Side, and we hired Nicky Phear as WRFI’s first paid director. Many of the first wave of WRFI instructors moved on to different roles about this time as well, but EVST and the University of Montana proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for highly qualified field and office staff, and clearly has remained so ever since.

Today, at 13 years old, WRFI runs 9 to 12 courses in some of the most beautiful and interesting landscapes in North America, attracting between 40 and 60 students each year.

Dave Havlick, WRFI’s founding director