Dozens of supporters from across the U.S. gathered on a warm Thursday morning to listen to speakers and explore the newly opened National Museum of Forest Service History Visitor’s Center and Forest Discovery Trail, just west of the Missoula Smokejumper Center.
While the museum has been in operation since 1988, executive director Lisa Tate said this is first time they’ve had a permanent home to call their own.
“We’re part of the cultural fabric of this community, and we have been for a long time,” Tate said. “But because we haven’t had a physical location, people haven’t thought about us or have forgotten about us.”
She said she was excited to have a place to welcome visitors, but the museum will continue to offer services such as traveling exhibits, classroom visits, teacher resources, and working with researchers and other museums.
The new facility on Highway 10 West underwent around $100,000 of improvements to roads, new signage and the new interpretive trail. Tate said all of the money was donated.
One such donor was Kathy Saylor’s father, William Herbolsheimer. Herbolsheimer grew up in Great Falls and received a forestry degree from the University of Montana. He retired in 1987 after a 34-year career in the U.S. Forest Service. Saylor said her father loved the museum and encouraged many people to donate to it.
“We had so many conversations in his last months about his Forest Service colleagues and the meaning of this,” Saylor said. “When he died, he asked for donations to the museum.”
Saylor’s father passed away in September. Saylor and her son, Matthew, traveled from Pennsylvania to attend the grand opening because she said her father would have wanted to come.
“I thought it was only fitting when we received this invitation to come out and be here in spirit with him and an opportunity for my son, someone younger, to appreciate that,” Saylor said.
Many current and past USFS employees attended the event, including retired USFS Chief Dale Bosworth. Bosworth serves on the board of the National Museum of Forest Service History and spoke about the importance of spreading USFS history.
‘Maybe this museum might help us a little bit, might inspire us a little bit as a public general, to reinvest in these national forests and grasslands so the next generations will have the same opportunities that we’ve had,” Bosworth said.
Montana Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines sent representatives to read letters of support for the museum, and Missoula Mayor John Engen also spoke. Many people remarked at the large crowd that gathered to listen to speakers, tour the visitor’s center and walk on the interpretive trail.
The Visitor’s Center is a decommissioned ranger’s cabin from the Bungalow District. Attendees could read educational material and shop for souvenirs before and after the ribbon-cutting. The cabin will eventually become an exhibit itself, letting visitors see a historic ranger’s cabin.
Visitors can also tour the Forest Discovery Trail, a short, paved loop with educational signage. One of more popular exhibits at the grand opening was a long, detailed USFS timeline, detailing major events in the history of the agency. Future exhibits on the trail will focus on fire and pack animals.
With the grand opening behind them, the museum is already looking to the future. Fundraising has begun for the National Conservation Legacy and Education Center, which will be built elsewhere on the grounds. The 30,000-square-foot building will be able to handle 100,000 visitors each year.
As the event was wrapping up, visitors clapped and cheered at the sight of two smokejumpers-in-training parachuting to the facility next door.
The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Labor Day. After Labor Day, interested visitors can make appointments to visit the museum. Admission is free.