From North Cascades Institute to the Montana Natural History Center

What have I been doing since graduating from the North Cascades Institute M.Ed program in 2003?  A lot.  As it turns out, in a small non profit, you do your basic job and then you do other things, or “other duties as assigned” as our job descriptions generally say.
I’ve helped out on several planning committees for Children and Nature efforts in Missoula and in Montana, I’ve served on the board of the Montana Environmental Education Association, and worked briefly for the International Wildlife Film Festival.  But for the last decade, I’ve been at the Montana Natural History Center.  And the longer you work in a place, the more your job tends to shift and morph into something that almost resembles what you exactly want to be doing.
Today at work I packed rocks into boxes.  The rocks are from an assorted collection donated to the Montana Natural History Center years ago.  They have been sorted by volunteers through the years and have been relegated to a far corner of our storage space.
We also packed skulls from both native animals and others like horses, seals, and even a walrus.  Similar donations.

We are preparing to empty the center storage area to start construction on the final phase of our building—effectively turning the old Big Sky Brewery and former railroad warehouse into our Montana Natural History Center. (We actually found a railroad spike in the dirt while landscaping!)

montana nature centerMontana Natural History Center

And this all hinges on the other aspects of my job.  Grant writing, fundraising, and program development.
I graduated from the North Cascades Graduate Residency program in 2003.  I was part of the first class—all women in that first year—who took the leap of faith and tried it out.  I had always planned on going to grad school and discovered the program right before I committed to another more traditional program.  I was looking for a professional experience that would take me out of the realm of seasonal, field based environmental educators and into the world of full time non profit program supervisory staff.  I needed to know the inner workings of a non profit in order to get a real job.  The North Cascades Institute program fit that bill.
I have now worked for the Montana Natural History Center for nearly 9 years and have been involved in nearly every aspect of the organization’s work.  The run down of my annual responsibilities is likely to sound like a snoozer—preparing the annual budget, managing agreements and grants, evaluating programs, writing and editing grant proposals, collaborating with staff on marketing strategies, and building community partners—but this is actually the good stuff!  These are all of the cogs and wheels that keep the organization moving forward and building capacity!
In two weeks I’ll have the opportunity to meet a trustee from a foundation that is currently considering one of our proposals.  The proposal will help us create a new classroom space with the technology to offer teacher trainings to the most remote regions of Montana.  The possibility of being able to connect with teachers in north east Montana is exciting and the opportunity to actually share our passion and our project with a trustee, in person, is truly powerful.
I look back on the work I did with the North Cascades Institute more than 10 years ago and it’s the little things that creep up and become the most relevant.  Budgeting, staffing structure, program safety planning, and program partnerships they developed give me perspective on my organization’s health.

elc constructionConstruction site of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, back in the early 2000’s

I also took with me the experience of the solo hikes with the Mountain School kids, the unique structure of the adult seminar programs, and the creativity behind the programs that the North Cascades Institute created.  But it was all of the inner workings of the organization that really carry through to my current position.  I give the North Cascades Institute a lot of credit for my confidence in understanding how non profits work.  And for me, all of these little details are the moving parts that keep our staff in the field.  For me, that is really exciting.
And on some days, it is back to “other duties as assigned” and I’m in the storage room with our Executive Director, packing rocks and wondering….maybe someday when we get around to unpacking those rocks I can be in his position.

Leading photo: The author, pushing a wheelbarrow at the Montana Natural History Center. All photos by the author

Lisa (Moore) Bickell was in the first graduating class of North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed program, back in 2003. She is the Education Director at the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula where she has been employed since 2004.  When not at work, Lisa is busy with her 2 young kids, running, gardening, and exploring Big Sky Country.


  1. Ms Jerry Rutherford

    Thanks for letting us know about your “life after North Cascade!!”

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