By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Montana State University shuttered its operation of the Big Sky Institute on June 31, 2011, after 15 years of educational partnerships and outreach in science within the community.
The program was funded, in large part, by grants through MSU, and also partly through annual fundraising in Big Sky.

The local monies – raised primarily during summer gala events in Big Sky – amounted to about $625,000, and were intended for programming, staff and ultimately a facility to be built next to Ophir School.

“It is frustrating because it was a great idea,” said former BSI board member Chris Wright. “It was going to be a confluence between science and research in the ecosystem, the university and the Big Sky community. It was a great ambition, to have the Woods Hole of the Rockies here in Big Sky.”

Many community members have since wondered what became of the organization, why it so suddenly closed, and where the remaining funds ended up.

More than $75,000 of the locally raised money remains and is held by the MSU Alumni Foundation. It can only be used for a “like” purpose within the community, said Michael Stevenson, President and CEO of the MSU Alumni Foundation.

“MSU came to us [in 2006] and said they wanted to make [BSI] a much bigger deal,” said BSI board member Loren Bough. “But the community would have to step up.” The board obtained a donation of two acres next to Ophir School and found local developers interested in bidding on a new facility.

“We launched an effort to raise more money, we successfully met the goal stated by MSU, and raised more than $100,000 for several years,” Bough said.

The Resort Tax Board in 2008 allocated $47,000 for architectural drawings of the planned facility, and $57,000 in 2009 to fund the initial MSU and Big Sky Community Education Partnership, funding earmarked for BSI and MSU Extended University.

But the facility was never built, the partnership never came to fruition, and there has been no indication – to the community or the board of directors – where the university intends to spend the remaining $75,000.

“Any balance will be held by the foundation until [MSU] decides whether to dissolve the program, since there is no outreach going on right now,” Stevenson said. The university considers BSI an operating institution, although no programming or staff is currently active.

In 2011, the same year MSU closed BSI, the university began the Montana Institute on Ecosystems in partnership with the Montana University System, resulting in a $20 million National Science Foundation grant. The IoE, according to its website, is a group of scholars and partners with a shared vision to advance integrated environmental sciences and related fields.

“The university was using its resources . . . to partner statewide for the creation of the federally funded IoE,” said Tracy Ellig, Director of the MSU News Service. “The IoE’s work will benefit the state as a whole and is one of the first such state-wide enterprises of its kind nationally.”

Although the privately raised funds from BSI didn’t go to the IoE, MSU essentially decided to spend its own time, research efforts and state and federal grant money there instead.

“The BSI was a great experiment,” said Todd Kipfer, former BSI staff member and current IoE Assistant Director. “It linked a university and a community, but it was meant to be much larger and link the Greater Yellowstone, to create something world-class.”

BSI lacked the statewide funding appeal that grant applicants like IoE have, and the faculty and staff of university departments and colleges. It did not, however, lack a community of scholars. MSU professors Ed Adams, Jordy Hendricks, Wyatt Cross and Mark Skidmore all still have active research projects in the area. BSI’s closure hasn’t changed this ongoing work, Kipfer said.

None of this has been communicated to the BSI board, Bough said.

“The board members are equally in the dark about BSI as the community is. There has never been any official communication in writing with the board by MSU.”

The MSU Alumni Foundation also holds the land once slated for the BSI headquarters, which abuts the Big Sky School District property line. The school district, one of the fastest growing in the state, is currently in the process of facilities planning for a second building, which would house elementary students.

“Myself and [BSI] board member Taylor Middleton have approached the foundation about getting that land,” Bough said. “We’re not clear why they refuse to commit to putting the land back into community use.”

“Use of the land falls under our strategic plan for the colleges and institutes like BSI,” Ellig said. The first phase of MSU’s strategic plan was recently finished, he added. “How that land gets used will be part of the second-tier process. I don’t have a timeline [for that process] right now.”

While MSU has no plans to build a BSI facility on that property, this may not be the end of the institute in Big Sky, according to Ellig.

“The Big Sky region is important to the university and we want to move forward in a deliberate, thoughtful and strategic manner with the institute,” he said. “The next chapter on the institute has not been written, but we don’t anticipate it being the last.”