Two longstanding Durango nonprofits known for connecting people with the outdoors have merged in an attempt to have a broader reach across Southwest Colorado.
The San Juan Mountains Association – founded in 1988 as a partner with the U.S. Forest Service to help drive education, stewardship and conservation on public lands – has announced it absorbed Durango Nature Studies. The merger went into effect last week.
Durango Nature Studies was founded in 1994 by Janet Kenna and Anne Rilling, who envisioned an outfit to bring environmental education to students. The nonprofit grew to offer after-school programs, summer camps, field trips and science-based initiatives.
In recent years, Durango Nature Studies provided programs to 5,000 to 6,000 students a year in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio.
Both organizations said the merger was driven by revenue trends.
Stephanie Weber, executive director of Durango Nature Studies, said the nonprofit considered operational cutbacks after BP America Production Co. ended its annual grant of about $50,000 in 2017.
Over the past decade, BP reduced its operations in the San Juan Basin natural gas field as gas production declined across Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. In 2019, BP announced it would pull out of the basin.
“It forced us to look at what we were doing,” she said. “But while finances are always part of the decision, (the merger) was not out of desperation.”
Instead, both organizations hope to have a bigger impact on the community, said Brent Schoradt, executive director of San Juan Mountains Association.
“I don’t think there is a downside,” he said. “By coming together, it will allow us to have a broader program that serves more kids, save on administrative costs and have a more sustainable program that can exist into the future.”
Durango Nature Studies’ mainstay programs, such as nature lessons at local schools, field trips to its reserve near Bondad and summer camps, will continue under the San Juan Mountains Association banner.
Schoradt said the organizations now will reach students from kindergarten to high school in La Plata and Montezuma counties.
“We’re starting to see we can reach kids in kindergarten or first grade, then as they grow older, graduate toward careers in the outdoors,” he said.
This year, for instance, San Juan Mountains Association will launch a program that takes Mancos students onto public lands on Fridays, when schools are not in session. Mancos schools operate on a four-day schedule.
“We feel it’s serving a community need, that when parents are working and school is not in session, we’re helping provide repeated exposure to the outdoors,” Schoradt said.
Weber said new after-school programs will give educators additional opportunities to expose students to trails and open space.
“It’s basically just going to give us opportunity to expand our capacity and our regional exploration,” she said.
Weber reiterated that the merger would benefit the community the groups have served.
“It’s imperative as leaders to look at our community and think about what the needs are, and not be afraid to make those decisions, even if it means change,” she said. “The very nature of nonprofits is to fill gaps and serve the needs where others aren’t. By working cooperatively, we can better serve those needs in our community.”