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Boulder County community honors leader in environmental education

Dr. Oakleigh Thorne II has spent nearly seven decades connecting people with nature in Boulder County.
Dr. Oakleigh Thorne II has spent nearly seven decades connecting people with nature in Boulder County.

To be working tirelessly at age 94 as an environmental steward and educator, one must have a strong sense of purpose — and Dr. Oakleigh Thorne II has just that.

For decades, he has connected children with nature through his nonprofit, the Thorne Nature Experience

“The sooner you get them out into nature, the better, and then they grow up to be good stewards of the earth, because they’re used to being out in nature and nature becomes very important to them,” Thorne said.

This year, the dedicated educator and environmentalist is being honored as Boulder County’s Earth Day Ambassador.

“Earth Day presents a perfect opportunity for all of Boulder and Boulder County to recognize Oak’s monumental contributions to protecting our wildlife and wildlands, and for instilling a love for nature in our children who today are able to benefit from his key role in our open space legacy,” said Julie Marshall, Colorado state director for Animal Wellness Action. “Plus, Oak is just a really cool human being who wears his cap backwards and plays jazz piano.”

Marshall and other community members are advocating for the Boulder County commissioners and the city of Boulder to issue a declaration honoring Thorne every Earth Day.

“He was and is the epitome of Earth Day even before Earth Day became a national celebration in 1970,” said Spense Havlick, a former Boulder City Council member and Thorne’s classmate in the 1950s at the University of Colorado Boulder. “During his entire life, he put the words of ecological stewardship into action. Oakleigh did it through his film making, his advocacy for sustainability and the establishment of the Thorne Ecological Center.”

Thorne’s love of nature began when he was a child growing up on a 60-acre property on Long Island. 

“We had streams and a pond, and woods and meadows, and I was just a nature boy right from the beginning,” he said.

Thorne earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University in the early 1950s, before he moved to Boulder to earn his doctorate in Biology at CU Boulder. 

He incorporated his nonprofit, the Thorne Ecological Institute, in 1954. The organization later became the Thorne Nature Experience, to cater more to children.

“We had programs for both adults and kids, and then little by little, we evolved to just doing children environmental education, because we thought, ‘they are our future,’ and they were the most important ones to get out in nature,” Thorne said.

For decades, the nonprofit ran bird banding programs that took children all over Boulder County.

Dr. Oakleigh Thorne II has spent nearly seven decades connecting people with nature in Boulder County. Image courtesy of the Thorne Nature Experience.

Thorne worked with other nature advocates to preserve Enchanted Mesa south of Chautauqua, Table Mesa and The People’s Crossing. He served on the University of Colorado’s Natural Area Committee, PLAN-Boulder County and on Boulder’s very first Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He also helped to found the Environmental Studies Department at Naropa University.

Image courtesy of the Thorne Nature Experience.

Thorne founded Thorne Films, an educational film company that produced more than 800 titles over two decades. 

He was also featured in the documentary “Mighty Oak” for his environmental advocacy.

Image courtesy of the Thorne Nature Experience.

Thorne’s nonprofit organized Boulder’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970, and more than five decades later, he’s been named Boulder County’s Earth Day Ambassador.

















Amber Fisher

About the Author: Amber Fisher

I'm thrilled to be an assistant editor with the Longmont Leader after spending the past decade reporting for news outlets across North America. When I'm not writing, you can find me snowboarding, reading fiction and running (poorly).
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