Madison Conservation District Stewardship Award 2019: Jack Creek Preserve
Reagan Colyer, The Madisonian
Jack Creek Preserve was founded in 2005 by Jon Fossel and Dottie Fossel, who established the 4,500-acre conservation easement to serve as a corridor for wildlife migrating through different parts of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. As development threatened habitat from all sides, they decided to set apart the area for its original inhabitants, but the Preserve didn’t stop there.
“Our mission is to preserve wildlife and its habitat by educating youth about the importance of conservation,” says executive director Abigail King. “We’re all about conservation education.” For its conservation and education efforts, Jack Creek Preserve has been selected as the recipient of Madison Conservation District’s 2019 Stewardship Award.
In the 14 years since its founding, Jack Creek Preserve has pursued that mission through a variety of avenues, beginning with weekend-long educational trips for students ages 12-18. After the first trips in 2005, Dottie Fossel and her staff followed up to get feedback.
“We wanted youth to have a real outdoor experience,” says the co-founder. “We asked at the end what we could do better, and the answer was ‘make it longer!’”
So they did. Now, the Jack Creek Preserve hosts three-day, four-night outdoor camps run entirely by volunteers that encompass everything from campfire building and archery to photography, astronomy and fly fishing. Former campers even return later as junior counselors and education leaders.
The Fossel Foundation also facilitates scholarships for students at Montana State University pursuing environmental and conservation-oriented studies. In past years, they’ve had ambassadors studying water science and bighorn sheep telemetry come to camps and pass their skills and knowledge on to another generation of wilderness enthusiasts and stewards.
Those camps were how Marc Elser first became connected with the Preserve as a science teacher. Elser brought his science students to the easement to allow them firsthand access to Jack Creek to see the impacts of development on stream health and practice hands-on water quality monitoring. Elser highlighted those experiences—and the use that collected data ultimately went toward—in his letter nominating Jack Creek Preserve for this year’s Madison Conservation District Stewardship Award.
“Camps are designed to encourage campers to appreciate the outdoors and care about our natural resources for future generations,” wrote Elser. “Students monitored and collected data…that was then reported to Montana Department of Environmental Quality, establishing an important baseline dataset of water quality information.”
As their summer student experiences thrive, Jack Creek Preserve is also approaching outdoor education from another angle with its newest addition: the Jack Creek Preserve Conservation Field School, which welcomes teachers from all over the state and the nation and provides them with wildlife- and conservation-oriented curriculum to take back to their students.
The Preserve school hosted its first two-day Conservation Field School in October, drawing teachers from all four corners of Montana. King, who has been a wildlife educator and wildlife biologist herself for over a decade, says the provision of materials to teachers is one of the defining elements of expanding the reach of the Preserve’s educational efforts.
“What we really want to set us apart from other programs is providing teachers with information they can plug right in,” says King. “I think it happens a lot where teachers leave a workshop and don’t do anything with the information because of the lack of time to put together their own curriculum. We want them to tell us what they need and then provide it to them.”
The 2019 conservation school sessions will take place in July and October. Half of the spaces in the first session are already full, including educators from as far away as Ohio and Oklahoma. Registration for the October session will open later this year, and in the meantime groups of students from California to New Hampshire routinely return to the Preserve’s Outdoor Education Center throughout the summer and fall. But all of Jack Creek Preserve’s programs come back to the same mission.
“All of our efforts are teaching and instilling an appreciation for stewardship of our natural resources, whether it be teachers who pass it on to their students or classes who come to learn about the wildlife here,” says King. “Everything we do is to help people understand and appreciate this place.”