The team at Ecology Project International is leading up critically important conservation projects in some of the world’s most beautiful and ecologically diverse places, from their headquarters in the heart of western Montana’s Rocky Mountains. If that doesn’t already sound too good to be true, trying add this to the mix: due to their pro-recreation, pro-adventure employee policies, EPI was selected as one of Outside Magazine’s “best places to work” in 2012 and 2013.
Working for EPI may be a dream come true for many, but it took the hard work and vision of two entrepreneurs, co-founders Scott Pankratz and Julie Osborn, to transform a dream into a thriving non-profit based in Missoula, Montana. In the 90s, Scott and Julie were working and studying independently in Costa Rica when they began discussing some of their mutual frustrations, including the fact that most conservation projects they were working on failed to achieve the long-term behavioral changes or sustainability policies that were required to save critical habitat and wildlife. The pair turned that frustration into creation, developing conservation programs that would specifically focus on getting local villagers - particularly young people - involved, and the seeds of EPI were planted.
In May of 2000, they launched EPI’s first program in Costa Rica. Osborn remembers being surprised to learn how little previous exposure the local students had to wildlife:
“Missoula had the access to wilderness and recreation we wanted in our lives, and it also had the airport we needed for international travel and amazing cultural amenities fostered by the University’s presence”
“We were pretty amazed - although these kids had grown up literally walking distance from the project site, most had never seen a live sea turtle before. This was a completely new experience for them.”
Although EPI was running local-centric conservation programs in Costa Rica, the Bay Area in California was still homebase for Scott and Julie - but it felt less like home every time they returned from Central America, according to Julie:
“It was strange to spend weeks or months in the wilderness and rural communities in Central America and then come back to the traffic and frenetic pace of life in the Bay Area. Every time we got back from a project, it felt like it made less sense to be running EPI from that environment.”
The co-founders took a road trip around the Pacific Northwest and into the Rocky Mountain West, where they found the college town of Missoula: a perfect fit.
“Missoula had the access to wilderness and recreation we wanted in our lives, and it also had the airport we needed for international travel and amazing cultural amenities fostered by the University’s presence. We knew we would be happy here, and that we would be able to find the bilingual, talented staff we needed for our programs. It wasn’t hard to make the choice to be here.”
More than a decade later, EPI has expanded to programs in Belize, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico, Panama - and a local project in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Each project matches international students with locals interested in learning valuable scientific research skills and helping to conserve their natural surroundings for future generations. Needless to say, a day’s work for EPI offers far more rewards than a pay check and a great headquarters. As Julie puts it:
“We’re really grateful to be working with young people who want to protect these amazing places, and we’re even more grateful to be able to run this non-profit from Montana...Missoula has been an incredible place to raise kids and grow our organization. We’re really looking forward to expanding our reach in the future.”