A field program teaches undergrads to think differently about public lands

  • Artist and archeologist Joe Pachak leads the Westies up the slickrock on Comb Ridge near Bluff, Utah, last October.

    Claire Meints Courtesy Semester in the West
  • Author Sarah Gilman hamming it up at the Valles Caldera Preserve in New Mexico during ecology class.

    Courtesy Corey McKrill
  • An excerpt from the journal kept by author Sarah Gilman during her 2002 Semester in the West.

    Courtesy Sarah Gilman
  • Semester in the West founder and director Phil Brick discusses utility-scale solar development in the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County.

    Erik Lyon Courtesy Semester in the West
  • The Semester in the West chair circle at Snowmass Falls Ranch near Aspen, Colorado.

    Erik Lyon Courtesy Semester in the West
  • 2010 Semester in the West alums share a moment at last year's reunion of all six SITW sessions, 2002-2012, near Bluff, Utah.

    Erik Lyon Courtesy Semester in the West

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We muddled through tangled perspectives and facts in papers and independent projects, with help from a small library and spotty satellite uplink and solar power. And we leaned on each other, chewing over ideas in our outdoor kitchen or sprawled on sleeping pads in the grass. In the evenings, we'd gather in a circle of camp chairs and often share "epiphanies" -- moments of revelation and clarity translated into short essays exploring everything from the realization of what U.S. consumerism costs Mexican workers after a visit to Juarez's maquiladoras, to the sudden knowledge that a visually beautiful place was in fact sick with invasives and extinction.

Today, 130 students later, the so-called Westies have reliable Internet and electricity, and even put together podcasts. Climate change is now the program's central theme, along with restoration and ecosystem resilience. This fall, students spent several days with tortoise biologists, federal wildlife officials and solar employees, touring the construction site of Brightsource's 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar generating station in Southern California. They camped on the Navajo Nation at an elder's homestead, visited a Navajo activist who lives amid coal strip mines, toured the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and met Native workers there. Finally, they installed solar panels at an off-grid Navajo home.

"There are multiple realities here, no clear right and wrong," says Roger Clark, a program director with the Grand Canyon Trust, who connected Brick with Navajo speakers. Students must understand that "it's not as simple as preventing pollution." When you shut down a power plant without enough planning "people lose their livelihoods. But we will also ultimately run out of coal and run out of water to sustain this landscape through drought and climate change."

Seventy Westie alums make the reunion, scattered in satellite campsites across the slickrock around the trailer, coolers and camp tables that constitute the bustling kitchen. Between catching up on their changing lives, many share moments when their own expectations were upended. On the public-lands grazing portion of the program,'08 Westie Rosa Brey remembers Western Watersheds Program Executive Director Jon Marvel pointing out a dead burrowing owl in a stock tank on BLM land in Nevada. The weed-infested allotment he has shown students on nearly every program is bisected by a gullied, lifeless stream that runs 30 feet below the historic water table, thanks mostly to livestock grazing. "His argument was, 'These ranchers are so thoughtless. This landscape is just their tool,' " Brey recalls. Afterward, they visited Nevada ranchers Robin and Steve Boies, who spoke about their attempts to graze sustainably and agriculture's importance to rural economies. "They have such incredible stories of their lives on the landscape," says Brey, now outreach coordinator for the Colorado Canyons Association. "You think … what is the answer, and who in this position is doing the right thing?' "

The night the 2006 Westies first met Marvel, they ate burgers for dinner, remembers Clint Kalan, now a physician's assistant. "They were the kind you get at Walmart that come in a tube. We called them irony burgers."

Immersed in this grayer world, many students re-examined their own uncompromising green values. "You can't close your textbook on these issues at the end of the day, and they transform you," says '08 Westie Camila Thorndike, who recently worked with Imagine Greater Tucson, a collaborative land-use visioning effort. "I don't think that my position on any environmental issue was ultimately changed," adds Corey McKrill, an '02 Westie who has since worked for Grist.org and now builds websites. "But I've totally changed how I think those issues should be approached" -- not necessarily with lawsuits, though they have their place, but with open ears and minds. After all, solutions rammed down peoples' throats are unlikely to last.