Willow Bend’s History
It began with a pond.
In 1978, enthusiastic middle school biology teacher Jim David, his students, and community volunteers completed work on the Frances Short Pond, a previously disregarded section of the Rio de Flag behind Flagstaff Middle School. The idea was to clean up the area to create an outdoor environment for his students to apply the lessons they had learned inside the classroom.
Soon it became obvious that such a wonderful teaching and learning tool should be enjoyed by all of the city’s teachers and students, not just those with direct access to the pond. This desire lead to a need for an environmental education coordinator who could help schools build and use these outdoor classrooms.
And became a movement.
That same year, the Coconino Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCD), with prodding from David and local conservationist Jim Alam, voted to establish an environmental education program — the first of its kind in Arizona. Its mission was to provide leadership to initiate active environmental education in local school districts, youth groups and youth service organizations.
Environmental education was defined as the process of informing people about their environment and developing skills, motivation, and commitment to work toward solving current environmental problems and preventing new ones. A quote from one of their first publications states: “Conserving natural resources and protecting our environment is one of our most important obligations.”
Thus, rather than a separate discipline, program founders saw environmental education as a theme to be integrated into all academic areas. Math students can calculate the effects of population growth on food demand. English students can use the environment to inspire creative writing. The environment plays an integral role in social studies and especially, Arizona’s history. And science comes to life in the environment, allowing for studies and experiments not possible in a classroom alone.
The Coconino NRCD hoped the benefits from an active and well-coordinated environmental education program would not only benefit the students, but also the community as a whole and that in turn, the community would support the program.
That lives on today.
The Coconino NRCD was right. What began with a pond has grown into a comprehensive environmental education center comprised of K–12 programs and field trips reaching more than 16,000 students every year, community outreach and programs reaching an estimated 6,000 residents, and a building built in 2002 that serves as a public model of sustainability.
Most Flagstaff residents may have never even noticed Willow Bend’s building, located off Sawmill Road just south of New Frontiers. Built entirely as a passive solar straw bale building, its design is low-impact and blends with the natural surroundings. The center leads by example with low-water native gardens, a company biodiesel-powered Volkswagen Bio Bug, grid-tied photovoltaic power system, rainwater harvesting system, and more.
The building’s location is responsible for the organization’s namesake — as just behind its clay-colored walls, growing in the canyon along the Rio de Flag is a mighty Willow, whose wild branches serve as a constant reminder of Willow Bend’s environmental mission.
In 2003, Willow Bend was honored by the Arizona Clean and Beautiful Committee for achievement in environmental education, with the committee commenting: “Willow Bend reflected a true commitment to improve Arizona’s environment. An impressed judge applauded the multifaceted methods of reaching out to students, the physical area served by the program and the sustainability of the program.”
Willow Bend has exceeded its founders’ greatest hopes. Providing more than an environmental education, Willow Bend connects each of us to our natural surroundings and creates meaningful connections to the environment, nurturing a sense of dedication to conserving our limited natural resources.
With a rich, 33-year history behind it, Willow Bend hopes to remain an integral part of the northern Arizona community for years to come, creating awareness and making us more mindful of choices that benefit not only the individual, but also the community and the planet as a whole.