It wasn't the cold Friday morning that put that rosy glow on Jeff Olson's face, or brought the tears to his eyes.

It was the moment.

And what a moment it was for Olson, a Rapid City dentist, state Game, Fish & Parks Department commissioner and passionate outdoord advocate. For six or seven years he dreamed and schemed about a new GF&P office complex and outdoor education center here in town.

The idea, first promoted publicly five years ago this month by former GF&P Commission Chairman Ken Barker of Belle Fourche, was to fashion an Outdoor Campus West after the successful Outdoor Campus that GF&P built in Sioux Falls during the mid-1990s. Located near the Big Sioux River not far from The Empire mall, it was a stunning success. It attracts 100,000 visitors a year, 35,000 of whom take part in learning activities and classes that range from fishing and camping to plant identification and cooking.

If Sioux Falls could do it, why couldn't Rapid City? It was a simple question. The answer was anything but. Eventually, it turned out to be "yes," but there were plenty of "maybes" and "who knows?" and even a "well, maybe not" or two along the way.

During the early years of planning and site selection, Olson and other proponents of the project seemed to take - or get pushed - one step back for every two they took forward.

There were land complications, location and zoning conflicts, a few tiffs with the city.

Those squabbles with the city were settled, if not entirely forgotten, on Friday. Mayor Alan Hanks took a casual jab at GF&P in his otherwise unifying remarks, asserting that "at times it seemed like we had a bigger vision for this project than they did."

But he added that "it's through the power of partnerships that projects like this can become a reality." He also issued a cross state throw-down.

"Quite honestly, this is going to be so much better than Sioux Falls," Hanks said.

GF&P Secretary Jeff Vonk, a fly fisherman who knows a baited hook when he sees it, didn't bite on the "vision" point or the Sioux Falls comparison. He noted instead that the visions of many came together Friday on a chilly day of heart-warming celebration.

The ground breaking had finally arrived, and Jeff Olson's emotions broke with it.

"There were so many times I thought this day would never come," he said, still barely composed . "This is going to mean so much to this community, to the outdoors, to our children."

The delays worked out pretty well. State Sen. Stan Adelstein settled on a price for 33 acres just off Sturgis Road in northwest Rapid City that GF&P Wildlife Division Director Tony Leif said was "very fair to the state and essential to this project."

The fickle fluctuations of finance worked for the project in another way. Healthy wildlife populations, especially the ever-valuable ring-necked pheasants, brought a surge of hunting- license revenues in recent years that helped the GF&P Commission set aside more than $12 million for the Outdoor Campus West project.

"The beauty is that we can write the check on this," Leif said. "If we'd have done it five years ago, we'd have had to seek financing to get it done."

In short, it was worth the wait. "Sometimes, good things take time to get right," Leif said.

This seems to be one of those times.

Just ask Jeff Olson. But have a Kleenex on hand, just in case.


Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

(2) comments


I am so very proud of everyone that come together to make the outdoor learning center possible. FOR GOOD FOR EVER says it all.

Our children, our land and our wildlife are all suffering. The outdoor campus offers the chance to save all three at the same time while educating others to cultivate even more good. The educational opportunities are endless. I only wish they were taught in school. Can you imagine a world where children, our land, and our animals are safe and respected. Its not the world we live in now. We cant solve a problem we dont understand. Educational is critical, and not just in schools. Sound like to me that the outdoor campus has the answers. Positive solutions work. Good wins.

Jeff Olson has spent his entire life walking his walk. He is an amazing, brilliant, compassionate, generous, angelic human. Rapic City is beyond blessed. Jeff Olson is the King.


Would you rather go outdoors or go to the Outdoor Learning Center? We should be buying "outdoors," not buildings. Spend the money on land for wildlife habitat, fishing, hunting, and hiking access! We already have "Learning Centers," they are called public schools!

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