Founded in 1993, the Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) was the brainchild of three intrepid graduates of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Master’s Program: Matt Thomas, Tim Bechtold, and Dave Havlick. Shortly after completing their M.S. degrees—and true to the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies Program—Matt, Tim, and Dave pursued an array of different projects, including teaching Environmental Studies courses at UM, leading wilderness therapy trips, and working for local conservation organizations. With their combined experiences teaching in academia and working with young adults in wilderness settings, the trio began ruminating on the merits of field-based expeditions and the potential for adapting outdoor experiences to complement traditional college academics.
Discussions about running a semester-length course through UM’s Extended Studies Program eventually snowballed into the development of a full-fledged nonprofit organization dedicated to field-based education, headquartered in Dave’s living room. In September of 1993, Matt, Tim, and Dave registered the Wild Rockies Field Institute with the State of Montana and the IRS, and met for their very first WRFI board meeting.
After time spent testing out different course ideas and scouting routes in various landscapes across North America, 1995 proved to be WRFI’s breakout year. The organization ran seven courses, employed nine instructors, and attracted about sixty students from colleges and universities across the country. WRFI’s first full field season included courses in Baja, Southeast Alaska, Hawai‘i, the Ozark Mountains, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and various other landscapes across Montana. 1995 also saw the inception of Montana Afoot & Afloat, WRFI’s longest-running course, which continues to run every fall semester.
By 1997, WRFI had outgrown Dave’s living room office and garage gear hangar. The organization moved into its first rented office in Missoula and hired its first paid Director. Sadly, Matt passed away suddenly from natural causes in 2002. The Matt Thomas Scholarship Fund was established by Matt’s friends and family in memory of Matt and his commitment to education. The Matt Thomas Scholarship Fund grants merit-based scholarships each year to students enrolled on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course who clearly embody Matt’s ideals and visions.
To this day, WRFI continues to run several annual courses in some of the most beautiful and complex landscapes in North America, welcoming highly qualified instructors from around the world and attracting college students seeking adventure and immersion in critical place-based issues. We will be forever grateful to the inspired minds of Tim, Matt, and Dave, who took a great idea and ran with it—or, to be more precise: hiked, kayaked, climbed with it—to provide life-changing experiences to students seeking meaningful engagement with people and places for many more years to come.
WRFI’s legacy is best exemplified by our growing network of alumni. Students on WRFI’s courses are not passive participants in their education; they fully engage in the course material. As a result, they gain empirical and sensory understanding of what they’re learning, they can apply their knowledge to tackle complicated issues, and they have context for their convictions. WRFI alumni are an impressive bunch and their collective contributions to the causes and communities they choose to live, work and play in are the fuel that keeps WRFI’s home fires lit.
WRFI honors its historic legacy through ongoing commitment to its shared values of wilderness, education, responsibility, respect, and excellence.