ENNIS — The sound of a rushing creek greets visitors to a rustic new classroom building, built in the forested Madison Range near Lone Peak, where Jon Fossel envisions that generations of students will learn to understand and care for the wild environment.

It’s “a classroom in the wild,” Fossel said Thursday, standing in front of the brand new Outdoor Education Center, built by the Jack Creek Preserve Foundation he founded.

The weathered-wood building, which will host an opening ceremony at 1 p.m. Saturday, has already started serving as a classroom, kitchen and bunkhouse for visiting students and teachers.

The Outdoor Education Center itself would probably have cost $1 million to build, but thanks to donations from architects, contractors, and the Pope & Young Club, which promotes bow hunting, it cost less than $500,000, Fossel said.

Montana State University recently signed an agreement with the Jack Creek Preserve Foundation to let students and professors in environmental programs use the new building and forested preserve for class studies and field research.

Bob Garrott, a professor and director of MSU’s fish and wildlife ecology management program, said MSU has been trying for close to 20 years to make it easier for students in ecology, wildlife management and other majors to study in Montana’s fields and forests.

“We talk about ‘mountains and minds,’” Garrott said, referring to MSU’s slogan, yet it hasn’t been easy to get students into the field nearly as much as students would like.

Garrott, a Jack Creek Preserve Foundation board member, said access to the land could benefit perhaps 1,000 undergraduate students studying snow science, hydrology, plant ecology, fish and wildlife management, land resources and environmental sciences, earth science, animal and range science and other fields.

He polled the MSU campus and found five departments and 34 classes that could benefit. It will be easier for researchers than working on federal forest lands, because they won’t need to get federal permission for projects or worry that expensive equipment left on public land could be vandalized or stolen.

“For MSU, this is like having a $20 million research and education facility,” Garrott said. “I imagine this would quadruple students’ opportunities for field-based learning.”

And it’s essentially free to MSU. “That seemed right with what we’re doing,” Fossel said. For the Jack Creek Preserve Foundation, the partnership with MSU will advance its missions of education and conservation, he said.

Fossel, 71, was president and CEO of the Oppenheimer Funds mutual fund company from 1987 to 1996, and grew it from a $7 billion into a $34 billion company. He still serves on the board of what has become a $200 billion firm.

He said 20 years ago he was gearing up to run as a moderate Republican for governor of New York, when he decided to quit politics and move to Montana.

He and his brother, Scott, bought roughly 10,000 acres from Moonlight Basin, on the Ennis side of the Madison Range. Fossel said they set aside about 4,600 acres as the Jack Creek Preserve to connect the north and south sections of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and placed nearly all of it under a conservation easement.

The rest of the land is still owned by him, his former wife, Dottie, who is the Foundation’s co-chair, and his brother Scott, and most of those lands are also under conservation easements, too.

That means it can’t be developed into condos and ski hills, unlike the major Big Sky developments on the east side of Lone Mountain.

Fossel said he grew up in a tiny New York town of 300 people, where he could walk out the front door to go fishing and out the back door to go bow hunting for deer. He wants future generations – kids like his grandson — to share his passion for wildlife and wild places.

“You get to a certain age and start thinking about your legacy,” Fossel said. “Mine is kids and wildlife.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.