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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"I want them to be activists. But I want them to figure stuff out in ways that are respectful of the common interests that are always there," Brick tells me later. "If the complexity and confusion end in mindless relativism, then I've failed."

The program's focus on proactive problem-solvers and collaboration may help. In Wallowa County, Ore., Westies visit Doug McDaniel -- a 77-year-old former rancher and logger who, after decades of struggling for permits, has restored natural meanders to a channelized portion of the Wallowa River on his property, improving fish habitat. "These kids get really excited about that," McDaniel says. "You've got them thinking, 'Maybe we've got to look for the good role models in this thing.' "

In Utah, Westies assist Grand Canyon Trust ecologist Mary O'Brien with research to improve land management and support beaver restoration. "I never liked class exercises," says O'Brien -- an elfin woman with a big laugh and close-cropped gray hair who's legendary for enthusiastically exclaiming things like, "Look at the size of this spider on my leg!" Students learn more from work with real impact, she says: The data Westies have gathered on poor aspen recruitment in heavily grazed areas is helping a collaborative group plan how to improve elk and livestock management. "I want people to see how ecology is done in the field," she adds. "I also want to convey that you can be an advocate and a darn good scientist. You read whatever's on the transect whether it meets your expectations or not."

Effective activism also requires generosity, O'Brien believes. "I tell my staff when we're going to meetings, 'I don't want to see you sitting with other environmentalists. Come a half an hour before it starts, be the last one to leave, shake hands with everyone.' If you come away really liking everyone there, you have a better chance of getting past rigid ways of thinking."

The knowledge that opponents can be partners helps keep students from feeling paralyzed by massive environmental problems. "Maybe we can't save the world, but we can save a watershed," says '08 Westie Erica Goad, who now studies the effects of exurban development on wildlife. "That concept of scale, and seeing the actors everyday who are doing just that, is something that keeps me hopeful."

"This is all pretty heavy stuff," I point out. "Is this what you were anticipating when you signed up?

"No," McKrill deadpans, as other Westies laugh. "I just wanted to be outside for three months."

"I heard there was whiskey," adds someone else.

If programs like this have a serious failing, it's that there aren't enough of them, they must be small, they can be expensive and they tend to reach already-privileged students. The barriers to greater participation are significant, says Wild Rockies Field Institute educator and outreach manager Bethany Swanson (see page 14). As funding for higher education falters, it's harder to get financial aid and some schools are reluctant to allow students to apply it to domestic off-campus programs, she says. Meanwhile, as tuition costs rise, students are more wary of taking time from their traditional course of study to try something different if it means they must stay in school longer and spend more money.

Still, if even a few individuals are profoundly affected, these courses can have surprisingly broad reach. University of Colorado-Denver geography professor Gregory Simon -- an experiential educator -- enthusiastically tells me how a program called the Sierra Institute changed his life. He and his classmates explored the Four Corners, read and discussed books like Ed Abbey's classic Desert Solitaire, developed interdisciplinary projects and learned basic wilderness skills. When it ended, the economics major decided to attend graduate school in environmental science and management. He went on to offer others similar experiences through a field course in the Sierra Nevada that broke down traditional concepts of nature and introduced students to management conundrums at places like Owens Lake -- drained by thirsty Los Angeles. This coming semester, he and a colleague are creating a course exploring the social and ecological dimensions of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned into Colorado Springs last summer.

Art professor Bill Gilbert has seen similar effects on students who participate in his Land Arts of the American West program at University of New Mexico, a semester-long traveling course focused on earth works, place-based art, and human alterations of the landscape, like Hoover Dam. Most continue to consider their environment and community in their artwork, and at least two have started their own field-based art programs.

When I hear this, I think of my fellow Westies. At the reunion, after hikes and desert-river swims, we go around the now-giant circle of chairs and tell the group about our lives. It's striking: Nearly all of us work in public service, mostly in the environmental sector –– environmental law, activism, writing, film-making and mediation, land-use planning, teaching, working to change the Forest Service from the inside, field research, cross-border conservation, farming, solar power, and more.

On the last night, we begin to say goodbyes as some alums head homeward. After those who remain polish off a massive pan of curry, '08 Westie Liz Townsend strums her guitar in the darkness and begins to sing, the rest of us howling along on the chorus, all of our voices lifting into the star-scattered sky:

"… and when I woke up from that dream

I was on the road again

leaving my new friends and their work plans.


Well, I wish I was a lady

But I'm a rambler

And I am gone …"