In marketing itself to the outside world, Carolyn Sevier said, Billings is “closely wedded to landscape—the Rims, the river, the mountains, the prairies.”
She hopes that the Montana Audubon Center, which she was named to lead effective Jan. 1, will become widely known as the premier entity for helping connect people in this region with their natural surroundings.
“I want to be the hub for natural history education and citizen science in south-central Montana,” she said.
Sevier had been the education coordinator for the Montana Education Center for the past year and was hired as the executive director after the abrupt departure of her predecessor, Jonathan Lutz. He left in mid-November after only 11 months in the position.
His parting was amiable, Sevier said, and “he had a very positive impact while he was here, both on the center and the statewide organization.”
Montana Audubon has been going through a lot of changes lately, she said, including the retirement of state director Steve Hoffman on Dec. 31. Sevier said Lutz decided to resign at the same time Hoffman announced his plans to retire, so Lutz’s departure was not publicized until Sevier was named to replace him.
“I won’t say we’re settled yet, but we’re getting close,” Sevier said.
In a press release announcing the selection of Sevier to head the center, Norane Freistadt, acting director of Montana Audubon, said Sevier has “an impressive background in nature education and is deeply committed to the Billings community. It’s hard to image someone better suited for stepping into this role.”
She grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, and earned a degree in environmental science and English from Carroll College in Helena. After graduation she was hired as Carroll’s assistant speech and debate coach, a position she held for five years.
Then, 10 years ago, she moved to Billings to serve as a volunteer for the newly established Rim Country Land Institute. She later became its program director and only employee, and since the institute’s mission was similar to that of the Montana Audubon Center, she volunteered and did programming at the center, which included teaching a Montana Master Naturalist class there.
Meanwhile, she met and married a Billings native, Morgan Sevier, and she and Morgan are co-owners, with Morgan’s parents, of Dovetail Designs and Millwork. After the Rim Country Land Institute ceased operations, Sevier spent five years at home, raising three young children.
But during those years she was also president of the Montana Environmental Education Association, so she maintained her close ties with the Audubon Center.
The center operates in partnership with the Yellowstone River Parks Association, which reclaimed a 27-acre gravel pit off South Billings Boulevard just north of the Yellowstone River. Montana Audubon leases those 27 acres from the YRPA for $1 dollar year, and its campus also includes 27 acres of city-owned parkland.
Sevier said 80 percent of the center’s programming is wrapped up in three ventures—a Fledgings Nature Preschool, summer camps and its Audubon Naturalists in the Schools program, or ANTS.
ANTS, its largest and longest-running program, involves a partnership with 49 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in the Billings area. Naturalists spend time in the classrooms and students spent time at the center, giving each class 19 hours of contact a year with the Audubon center.
The Norm Schoenthal Field Lab, which includes a wet lab, small offices, storage space and the preschool, was named for a founding member of the YRPA who has done much of the restoration work at the center. It was originally intended to be one of two buildings on the campus, Sevier said, with a second building containing offices and reception and interpretation space.
That second building could be added in the future, she said, but for now her goal is to increase the number and accessibility of all-ages activities at the center, and to greatly expand its community outreach.
“There are a lot of people who know about the center, but more who don’t,” Sevier said. Although the center relies to a large extent on donations, financial support has always been ad hoc and irregular. She said her goal is to “develop community relationships in a strategic and intentional sort of way.”
At the moment she has one other full-time employee—Trinity Pierce, the land stewardship coordinator—and eight part-time staff members. In the next two years she’d like to hire two more nearly full-time employees, including a community outreach coordinator.
Mostly, she is excited by the opportunity to show an ever-growing number of people what the Montana Audubon Center has to offer. It is not a “pristine natural place” that people visit to see what an unspoiled landscape looks like, she said. It is, rather, “a former industrial space that people came into and put their effort into restoring.”
“That makes it really, really unique among nature centers around the country,” she said. “When you tell people that every tree and every shrub was planted by hand by volunteers, they can hardly believe it.”