By Maria Wyllie
Explorebigsky.com Associate Editor

BIG SKY – The Jack Creek Preserve Foundation is gearing up for summer camps and expanded outdoor education opportunities with the completion of its new outdoor education center, located on the 4,600-acre preserve connecting the northern and southern portions of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.

On Friday, June 7, clear skies welcomed 19 volunteers, who worked diligently on interior projects and the removal of construction debris and waste surrounding the center. The new facility can comfortably sleep 30-35 people, and its classroom has a capacity of 40.

Jackie Kline, an AmeriCorps member who works for JCPF, organized the volunteer clean up day in preparation for Kym’s Kids of San Antonio, a youth group that will be staying there June 23-30.

The space will serve as a teaching facility and the JCPF headquarters.

“In this region, there really isn’t a destination education center where you can stay overnight and be so remote, yet still be 45 minutes from civilization,” said Katie Alvin, JCPF Executive Director.

Calling the building his “crown jewel,” co-chair and president Jon Fossel said JCPF had zero funds when it started construction, but it has raised most of the money needed for completion through a grant from the MJ Murdoch Charitable Trust and donations from a number of local and state groups including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pope and Young Club, Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Foundation, contributions from individual donors, and in-kind donations in the form of architectural design work, professional kitchen appliances and equipment and waived general contractor fees.

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” Fossel said.

With a broad vision for youth and outdoor education, Jon and Dorothy Fossel founded JCPF nine years ago and donated the 4,600 acres for administration by the nonprofit.

“The goal is educating as many people as possible with issues relating to outdoors so they walk away with a balanced view,” Fossel said.

Beginning with one kids’ summer camp spanning two days and one night, the organization has grown, now offering a number of youth education camps, outdoors scholarships, hunting opportunities, a water quality monitoring project, and habitat management on the property.

“The diversity of habitat is really great,” Alvin said. “It makes it an awesome outdoors classroom, but in order to explore it fully, you need to be out there for multiple days.”

A memorandum of mutual understanding created between Montana State University and JCPF will help the nonprofit expand its education to the next level.

Board member Robert Garrott, also a professor of ecology at MSU, says the university has been trying to incorporate an off campus center for field education for at least a decade.

The space will enhance education for university students, which will in turn benefit the preserve by providing increased knowledge of the land, while also training the next generation of natural resource professionals, Garrott says.

“It’s great for JCPF to be able to expand education to the university level,” Garrott said. “And it’s good for MSU, because we can enhance our education and use this preserve as an outdoor lab for research. Hands-on education is hard to come by.”

Despite the university’s proximity to National Forest land, Garrott says the preserve will streamline the process it must follow with the Forest Service, making it much easier to initiate ecological resources.

“The sky is the limit once the education center is embedded in this 4,000-plus-acre preserve,” Garrott said, adding that it will take almost no time for the facility to be used at maximum capacity, even in winter.

The center sits near a trailhead for interpretive nature trails and will offer exhibits on conservation, habitat protection, wildlife management, and the role of hunters as conservationists, according to the JCPF website.

Another volunteer clean up day will be held on Saturday, June 22, in preparation for the first camp group. For information on how to get involved, contact Jackie Kline at (406) 995-7550.