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A Natural Teacher

The Wild Bear Nature Center and its Vision of Creative Exploration

Article by Lisa Van Horne

Photography by Courtesy of Wild Bear

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

For Jill Dreves, executive director of Nederland’s Wild Bear Nature Center, education and nature have been intrinsically connected since her early years. Growing up in the remote mountains of northern Colorado, Jill and her siblings attended a small K-8 mountain school that seamlessly blended learning and the outdoors every day.

“My vision of education was formed through my childhood experiences,” Jill says. “My school was cutting-edge in that we watched elk migrate across the nearby meadow. We journaled, we went on hikes and we learned about our backyard.”

Jill pursued this passion for nature-fostered teaching and became an educator herself. In her career as a public school teacher, Jill continued to see the inimitable ways in which nature inspired learning as she formed “bug clubs” during the summers and worked as a naturalist with the Vail Nature Center.

“It was in that time that I found that nature is the best teacher,” Jill says. “It’s the place where people are most engaged and excited about learning. I also realized that community education is my true love.”

While she was working at Nederland Elementary School, Jill founded the Wild Bear Nature Center in 1995 and set out to inspire children, adults and families alike to immerse themselves in and become more connected to nature through creative exploration of the outdoors. That was the founding mission of the organization then, and it’s a focus that has not just remained steadfast, but has blossomed even more fully today.

The Wild Bear Nature Center itself is a nonprofit discovery center located in downtown Nederland. It is the only free nonprofit nature center with learning opportunities and activities for all ages in Boulder County, and it is open year-round to the general public. Along with this downtown location is Wild Bear’s Mud Lake property, which plays host to many of its myriad outdoor exploration programs and activities. Jill and the Wild Bear organization worked with the Town of Nederland and Boulder County in the 1990s to preserve what is now almost 3,000 acres and led the clean-up of over 30 tons of trash and waste to reinvigorate this stunning wetland habitat and beautiful setting for natural learning.

Through Wild Bear, guests enjoy both formal and informal opportunities to explore mountain ecology. The nature center itself provides a variety of exhibits to facilitate a deeper awareness of mountain nature and how people can be good environmental stewards. A state licensed, school-age child care center, it brings children outside into nature when school is not in session through hikes, nature studies, summer camps and more. As an official snow school, the center provides opportunities for snowshoeing with local scientists to learn about snow pack, water and snow science during the winter months. A number of family programs run year-round as well, including the annual Enchanted Forest, Wild Earth Weekend, Winter Solstice celebration and much more. Mud Lake programs facilitate both terrestrial and aquatic learning. All of these programs share the intent of connecting guests further with nature, integrating the arts and nature studies to spark curiosity, promote environmental consciousness and foster a tactile understanding of the natural world. 

Wild Bear’s suite of programs today is an exciting herald of even more expansive offerings to come. As part of Wild Bear’s participation in the restoration of Mud Lake in the 1990s, the organization purchased five acres of nearby land. Having received voter approval to build a new nature center on the property, the organization is actively working to make its permanent Wild Bear Nature Center a reality.

“It is extraordinary that Wild Bear is where it is today,” Jill says. “We’ve served hundreds of thousands of people of all ages over the years. Today people are more excited than ever about being in and learning about nature, and they understand more deeply that we need nature and nature needs us.”

The vision for the permanent Wild Bear Nature Center in north Nederland is a net-zero facility at the cusp of thousands of wild acres ready to explore. The facility will provide access to 16 miles of nearby trails, a nature playscape for children, dedicated hands-on exhibits, a public program space for nature education, a maker space, an observation deck, an outdoor amphitheater, a self-guided half-mile trail, picnicking areas, classrooms and ample additional space for group learning. As Jill notes, it will be an unparalleled opportunity to celebrate Colorado’s beautiful mountain ecosystem for locals and visitors alike.

“Now is the time to highlight nature, our place in nature and how we can better care for the earth,” Jill says.

Fundraising for the new Wild Bear Nature Center is actively underway and is nearing its capital goal. For those looking to support the organization and its vision, visit its website at wildbear.org.

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