It’s a museum of national scope geared to start telling a very national story — the history of the United States Forest Service.
On Thursday it opens to the public right here in River City, or rather 6.5 miles outside of it.
The National Museum of Forest Service History will hail the opening of its new visitor center and interpretive trail a mile west of the Missoula International Airport with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m.
There’ll be cake and coffee, the mayor, and representatives from the offices of Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. And there’s bound to be a whole lot of pinching going on as the reality of a project that was dreamed up in 1988 is hammered home.
The 36-acre site was purchased a dozen years ago to house the future home of the only museum in the country devoted to telling the forest conservation story of the United States. Though the museum board and supporters have been raising millions as a private nonprofit since then, it’s had the stamp of Forest Service approval.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect place for this museum, but I do think Missoula is as close as you can get,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said at the site in 2009, when the museum board announced plans to build the National Conservation Legacy and Education Center.
The 30,000–square foot center designed to welcome 100,000 visitors a year is still in the future, and the bulk of 50,000 artifacts, photos and records remain in the museum repository on Catlin Street.
But starting Thursday, and every day through Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the public can walk the Forest Discovery Trail lined with interpretive signs designed for all ages. It winds through a “Champion Grove” of trees with species from throughout the U.S. whose DNA has been preserved.
The trail is a component of the museum’s conservation education program, which in turn is part of a larger national approach to conservation history education, executive director Lisa Tate said in a news release.
“That approach includes developing 21st century learning skills for students, and place-based education, which connects content knowledge to real-world learning,” Tate said.
The backbone of the learning dates to 1905, when Congress created the Forest Service and President Teddy Roosevelt appointed the first chief, Gifford Pinchot.
Missoula was home to the first regional office, and eight national forests in Montana are parts of the rich forest history. So are the Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory and the smokejumper center down the street.
A bungalow ranger station cabin that from 1913 to 1971 sat on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho will serve as a visitors’ center and home to a rotating exhibit.
For most of the past decade the cabin and a lookout tower without legs have been the only noticeable signs of the museum for passers-by on West Broadway. The latter is a replica of a 1930s-era lookout tower, and it once looked out over the National Mall at the Smithsonian Institution castle in Washington, D.C.
The National Museum of Forest Service History is a mile west of Missoula International Airport at 6305 Highway 10 West. More information can be found at forestservicemuseum.org and at facebook.com/fsmuseum.