The former Hole-in-the-Wall Ranch up Fish Creek will be a conservation education camp run by Iowa State University in 2017.
The late Rod French and his wife, Connie French, owned the property, and the longtime supporters of Iowa State donated the ranch to the university late last year in a $4.1 million gift, according to a news release from the campus.
"The new name is the Rod and Connie French Conservation Education Camp," said Sue Blodgett of Iowa State in a recent telephone interview.
Blodgett said the property is roughly 50 acres, and the university plans to bring in classes of 60 students at a time to learn about natural resources in an environment that's different from the Midwest ecosystem.
The acreage is surrounded by the Lolo National Forest. Blodgett said the university is working on a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Forest Service that will be similar to an agreement the University of Montana has that permits access for studies and surveys.
Lolo National Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig said the official working on the agreement was not available to provide details early this week. However, he said UM likely has several agreements in place, and allowable use varies depending on the contract.
At least some nearby residents fear the camps could compromise the health of the forest and animals in the Fish Creek area.
Justin Starkel, whose family has hunted in the area for 50 years, said he's talked with many hunters who use the public land near the ranch, and they're concerned that bringing more people will hurt the environment just as it starts to recover from a fire that burned in 2015.
"They're really upset about it and don't want to see the area destroyed," Starkel said.
Ultimately, Blodgett said, the school wants to bring groups of 60 natural resource conservation students to the camp on possibly a two- to four-week cycle, but planners are working out the timing. She said she believes the camp will ramp up slowly.
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"I'm sure that our first couple years we will not nearly have that many," Blodgett said.
She also said she doesn't anticipate a lot of traffic. The students who attend the camps will be getting training on the conservation through different courses, and they are focused on protecting habitat.
"We're bringing the students out by van from Iowa, so we're not anticipating a lot of road traffic due to the camp," she said.
She also said the new UM School of Forestry and Conservation dean is an Iowa State alum, and faculty from the campuses are already in conversation about working together. Montana State University is involved in the discussions as well, she said.
"I expect quite a bit of collaboration," Blodgett said.
The news release from Iowa State said work still needs to be done on the property.
"The camp doesn't yet have access to the power grid, and students need reliable internet access to conduct their research," the release said.
Blodgett said for the time being, the camp will proceed without that infrastructure.
"Obviously, having internet and power would be helpful for providing an educational program, but you know we're going ahead with our educational program regardless," she said.