1980 - Discover the Wild: Idaho's Nature Centers

‘If you build it, they will come’ describes the energy behind Idaho Fish and Game’s nature centers and natural areas. Both wildlife and people have come, and where the two converge, learning happens.

WaterLife Discover Center
In the mid-1990s, Fish and Game met with concerned citizens and community groups to discuss options for the historic Sandpoint Fish hatchery built in 1909. The community wanted a place for people, young and old, to understand the role water plays in shaping our environment. They imagined a place to promote environmentally sound stewardship of our water resources and the idea for an outdoor aquatic education center began to develop.

It is a unique grassroots project that has taken many years of planning and development. Today, a partnership between Idaho Fish and Game, the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the local community has created the WaterLife Discovery Center. Check out the Pend Oreille Master Naturalist’s Facebook page for ongoing activities.

The WaterLife Discovery Center is a habitat education and interpretive area on the shores of the Pend Oreille River near Sandpoint, Idaho. It a self-guided educational center that combines a fish hatchery, nature trails, overlook bridges, wildlife watching areas, interpretive signs, and underwater viewing opportunities along a stream and a pond.

The property consists of 3.5 acres of developed interpretive exhibits and a 6.5 acre forested wetland with trails and interpretive signs. This area is home to white-tailed deer, moose, muskrat, mink, and river otters. Birds are found in abundance. Bald eagles, osprey and waterfowl grace the river while woodpeckers and songbirds prefer the wetland forest.

Lewiston Wildlife Habitat Area
In the 1960’s, Idaho Fish and Game purchased 10 acres in the Lewiston Orchards on the plateau and filled three of the acres with office buildings. The other seven acres was an alfalfa hayfield until 1985, when volunteers and community groups began converting it to a natural area.

Today, the Lewiston Wildlife Habitat Area is a wildlife-friendly oasis registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat Area.” This five-acre area provides an excellent way to observe wild birds, mammals and aquatic creatures. A paved path meanders through meadows and a small forest planted with a variety of trees and shrubs. Deer, coyote, raccoon, rabbit, skunks, amphibians, reptiles and over 115 bird species have been observed here.

Thousands of hours of labor over two decades have produced an urban wildlife area for people of all ages to enjoy.  Features include a rock fountain and meandering stream that spills into a small pond and an underwater viewing window that provides a glimpse of crayfish, snails and tiny fish. Benches along the trail are set amid flowering plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other insects. An observation gazebo is outfitted with one-way glass and surrounded by bird feeders, providing up-close wildlife viewing.

The area is handicap accessible and is open anytime to self-guided tours.

MK Nature Center
The Morrison-Knudsen Nature Center is a community jewel. For more than 20 years the center has provided meaningful natural experiences for all audiences, on their terms, for free or very affordable rates.

The MK Nature Center is located near downtown Boise. “If you build it, they will come” rings true here. This habitat was designed and built to attract wildlife and it worked. The MK Nature Center is frequented by mule deer, raccoons, mink, herons, kingfishers, beaver, countless songbird species, reptiles, amphibians and insects.  Descendants of the fish originally placed in the stream still swim here. Chinook and kokanee salmon are introduced annually and the three sturgeon are one of our most popular attractions. Native plants are everywhere and thus butterflies, bees and birds are abundant. Staff continue to maintain, build and enhance the habitat.

The Nature Center also attracts people of all ages by the thousands.  Situated adjacent to the Boise River and the Greenbelt, the Nature Center provides visitors a chance to see wildlife up close and personal. The jewels of the Nature Center’s features are the four underwater viewing windows where native fishes can be viewed.  In the summer and fall, the Nature Center receives shipments of Chinook and Kokanee salmon that spawn and die here. Natural processes and food chains are at work right before your eyes.

The Nature Center staff gets to show off these features in nearly 300 programs annually that serve over 10, 000 students, teachers and parents.  More than 100,000 walk-on customers take advantage of our free admission annually. Seasonal celebrations such as the Native Plant Sale, International Migratory Bird Day and Salmon and Steelhead Days connect even more people to nature.  Walk-on visitation is free, as is the beautiful visitor center, open 7 days a week. 

In the age of electronic stimulation and children spending limited time outdoors, nature centers, and maybe especially the MK Nature Center, offer an easy way to connect children with nature because nature is crucial to our well being.

Edson Fichter Nature Area
In 1994 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game acquired a hidden gem in the greater Portneuf Valley. Twenty-nine acres in south Pocatello was purchased for fishing access and conservation of wildlife habitat. Legacy gifts from local families and foundations, and cooperation from the City of Pocatello has helped the department create the Edson Fichter Nature Area, an investment in the future of Pocatello’s outdoor communities.

The Portneuf River meanders through the site making the riparian section of the Nature Area home to numerous species of wildlife, from songbirds to mule deer.  A substantial 70-foot bridge spans the river, and on summer evenings cliff swallows can be seen darting and swooping after various insects, bringing dinner to their young families nestled inside the cup-shaped mud nests clinging to the bridge beams.

Probably the most popular feature of the Nature Area is the 15-foot deep, 3-acre community fishing pond which opened in October 2011.  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game was able to add this urban fishing amenity with the help of various community partners, including a $60,000 donation from the family of the late Roger Humberger of Pocatello.

An estimated 67,000 visitors access the Nature Area annually. They come to fish or use the walking and biking paths dotted with interpretive signs with the artwork and writings of the Nature Area’s namesake, the late Edson Fichter.  They might also use the Portneuf Greenway Foundation Trail that runs through the Nature Area, visit the small, natural outdoor amphitheater, sit on the fishing pier and observation deck next to the river, or stroll through the beautiful community flower garden maintained by dedicated volunteers.

Much is still planned for the Edson Fichter Nature Area and the community of Pocatello is helping make it happen.

Salmon Outdoor Classroom
In 2003, funds raised by the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s radio auction allowed Idaho Fish and Game to purchase a four-acre site near Kids’ Creek Pond in Salmon.  The property had a varied history of land use, including a federal fish hatchery managed by Oregon and a BLM helipad.

The Salmon Region Fish and Game staff restored natural habitat and converted a straightened water channel back into a meandering stream. Not long after the bulldozers left the construction scene, a muskrat was seen swimming along the new habitat. Walkways were developed and a floating platform was added to the site’s pond.

Now called the Salmon Outdoor Classroom, it is within walking distance of all of Salmon’s schools.  The Salmon Alternative High School, which sits adjacent to the natural area, has access to an outdoor laboratory. The public is also welcome to visit the site to enjoy observing wildlife and the surrounding scenery. 

As with many outdoor areas, the Salmon Outdoor Classroom has the capacity to engage children and adults with the natural world in a quiet and unassuming way.