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The University of Utah can add 16 acres in Montana to its list of assets.

A California couple donated the property in the Centennial Valley, which includes mountains, wetlands and a restored ghost town, for an environmental education center.

The donation is from retired developer John Taft and his wife, Melody, who "fell in love" with the Centennial Valley and built a cabin there, said College of Humanities Assistant Dean Heidi Camp.

They set about preserving the land through conservation easements, and 12 years ago bought and began restoring the nearby abandoned town of Lakeview on the way to Yellowstone National Park, Camp said.

Friends — Bill Nicholson, entrepreneur and former president of the multilevel marketing company Amway, and his wife, Sandi — also own property in the area and helped fund the multimillion-dollar restoration.

The Tafts had always wanted to create an education center there, and after talks with schools in Montana failed to pan out, they approached the U., Camp said. The school entered into a three-year contract to host classes aimed at university students and outside students, including outdoor painting, environmental sustainability and an eco-spirituality workshop.

Other schools, including Weber State University and the University of Montana, will continue to offer courses there.

The center is already self-sustaining, Camp said, relying on room and board fees from institutional students and course fees from others.

Now that the facility, dubbed the Taft Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education Center, belongs to the school, officials want to expand the number of students invited to study there.

"We're hoping to broaden the engagement of the university," Camp said. They're also hoping to raise $4 million for an endowment to keep the center running into the future.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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