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Crisis and the Museum of Natural History

How the New Mexico Museum of Natural History became part of the SMNHC.

Crisis and the Museum of Natural History

In the spring of 1991, facing an impending budget crisis, the Albuquerque Public School Board proposed eliminating the Sandia Mountain Environmental Education Center (as it was called then) and slashed its budget. 7600 students had been to the center the year before; after the cuts, tours were all but eliminated. John Cox having just retired, the then acting Director, Gwen Ebert, was given a year to find alternative funding or close the center. Beth Dillingham soon joined the center and the search for funding. Gwen Ebert soon left the program while Dillingham continued to look for alternatives. 

Beth Dillingham

 A chance encounter with then Governor Bruce King led to a meeting with State Representative Gary King who championed the cause and enlisted the aid of Ray Powell. Ultimately a plan was adopted under which the state would provide funds to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, which would help operate the center.  APS would retain ownership of the center but the museum would provide operational funds and become a partner in the enterprise. In addition, the mission of the program would be extended to children statewide.  A joint powers agreement to that effect was signed on August 10, 1993 and the center, first named the Natural Resources Education Center, and then renamed the Natural Resources and Wildlife Education Center, was reopened in the fall of that year. Beth Dillingham became Director; she had participated in a tour at the center as a grade school student some 20 years before.

Also in 1993, a statewide explosion in the population of deer mice was linked to the hanta virus. Workers in anti-exposure suits were called in to clear all the center buildings of material which could harbor the mice, which essentially stripped the buildings of all materials, including a large number of photos taken over the years.  Within two years the center would again be renamed, this time as the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center.

As classes from nearby communities began to use the facility, the number of students participating in the program gradually returned to the pre-budget crisis levels.

Reaching Students Statewide

The Center educators began visiting cities throughout New Mexico to bring their Ecology Field Program to students outside of Albuquerque.   In 1996-97, the traveling program educated 800 students in a number of widely spread New Mexico communities including Cibola, Cobre, Jemez Valley, Las Vegas, Magdalena, Pecos, Santa Rosa, Silver City, Socorro, Truth or Consequences, and Vaughn. 

In early 1995, the Center once again faced the threat of budget cuts because the new

Stubbe Center under construction, 1997

 Governor, Gary Johnson, believed the center did not serve enough children outside of Bernalillo County.  In response, the legislature funded a dormitory building so children from around the state could spend the night after travelling. The new building was located on the site of an old storage building, which had been torn down earlier in 1996 when asbestos was discovered during repairs. By the end of 1996 Dillingham had left the center and the new building’s purpose had been changed from dormitory to staff center. It was constructed during the summer of 1997, but problems with the septic system delayed use of the building for several years. Flooding was a problem until landscaping around the structure was completed. 

Museum Management

Kristin Gunckel

A new director, Kristin Gunckel stayed for only two years before Helen Haskell took on the role. She remained for five years as lead teacher and also acted as caretaker, continuing in that post for two years after she left the teaching staff.  In 1997, several new programs were operating, including a field program in which 40 high school students researched ecology; 60 mid-schoolers spent summer nights at the center attending the Student Ecology Research Program; and a partnership to train UNM student teachers began. 

In 1998, the Center received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator’s Environmental Excellence Award for Environmental Education. The Award was based on the work of center instructors Julie Hall, Mary Dwyer, Helen Haskell, Kristin Gunckel and Jonathan Conrad. 

Beginning in 1999, a wheelchair accessible trail was added and then lengthened, with sections being added each year until 2004.