Not long before Carolyn Sevier moved to Billings a decade ago, she stood on a hill in South Billings with some of the founders of the 54-acre Montana Audubon Center.
“They were painting a vision of what had been done and what it could be,” she said, sitting in her office at the center that had not yet been built back then. “I was captivated by that mission.”
Now, as its new director, Sevier is pleased to carry on the mission of the nonprofit organization that seeks to help people of all ages connect with and learn about nature. She officially took over the post Jan. 2.
Sevier replaces Jonathan Lutz, who served as the director for 11 months before stepping down in November. She was appointed interim director at that time.
It was Lutz’s choice to leave and his parting was amicable, Sevier said, after he decided the center was “not the place he needed to be.”
She praised his time as director in stabilizing the center after the uncertainty from previous leadership transitions. The director of the program before Lutz, Darcie Howard, resigned in June 2015 and later sued, claiming she was forced out of her position. That lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in May 2016, and an interim director took over until Lutz was hired.
Formerly, Sevier worked as the center’s education coordinator, for which she had been hired at the same time as Lutz. She has been at the center now for a year.
Sevier graduated from Carroll College in 2003 with degrees in environmental science and English. She was hired as program director for the Rim Country Land Institute in Clancy, to create a nature education program near Molt, and she moved to Billings in 2007.
When the land institute closed, Sevier remained. From 2011 to 2016, she served as president of the Montana Environmental Education Association where she she advocated for nature and environmental education across the state.
Now, as she takes over the reins as director at the Montana Audubon Center, her first goal is to increase its visibility.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for growth, but that potential won’t be realized until more people know what we do,” Sevier said.
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The focus over the last 10 years has been on building strong programming, quality instruction and mentoring of kids, she said. Three programs help with that:
- Audubon Naturalists in the Schools, the longest-running and best-attended program, in which elementary students participate in a yearlong field trip program. Students get up to 19 hours of contact time with center staff, most of it outdoors. During the 2016-17 school year, that includes 49 classrooms, a 44 percent increase over the year before, of students from School District 2 and other area schools.
- Fledglings Nature Preschool, one of the first nature preschools in Montana, where preschoolers spend more than 80 percent of their time outside learning by exploring.
- Audubon Adventures Summer Camp, offering half- and full-day camps for youth ages 4 to 14.
There are also home-based school classes and afterschool programs. Overall, “between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year come here for programs,” Sevier said.
The two biggest community partners in the center are the Yellowstone River Parks Association and the Yellowstone Audubon Society. When they joined together to build the center nearly 10 years ago, it was intended to be field classroom space and a wet lab.
That use of the building will continue, Sevier said. But she’s working with one of the staff on creating an interpretive space, including a mural, to engage visitors. She’d also like to expand adult and public programming.
That, combined with the enthusiasm of supporters who keep the center going, will help the Montana Audubon Center to move forward. As Sevier talked about the work of the center, children’s excited voices could be heard in a nearby classroom and outside.
About 60 preschool and elementary students were at the center on Friday, learning about their surroundings. Sevier talked about another recent cold-weather birding hike taken by a group of fourth-graders.
One staff member noticed something unusual hanging from a tree. The birders pulled out binoculars to get a better look, then walked over to the tree where they saw a dead goose hanging from a limb.
An eagle had killed the bird, then left its remains hanging in the tree. It was one way, she said, the kids got to see nature in action.
Later, when Sevier emailed a teacher to make sure the kids were OK after being outside on such a cold day, Sevier was pleased with the response.
"She wrote back, 'the kids are fine, everybody had a great time. They'll remember this,'" Sevier said. "How many kids get to spend a whole day outside in the middle of winter?"