Education includes people, naturally
by Paul Larmer
When I was 20, I joined a college-abroad program in Kenya, Africa, to study the country's magnificent wildlife reserves. But my most memorable experience wasn't the night I nervously watched a herd of elephants crash through our campsite (though that was pretty cool). It came in the dusty, colorful markets of Nairobi. There, walking through a crush of humanity and exotic smells on the crutches I have used all my life, I saw other "disabled" people like me. They weren't buying or selling goods; instead, they sat in the dirt, or propped up on crude crutches against walls, usually holding out tins in hopes of a handout. For a young, sheltered American, it was an epiphany: Only wealth and circumstance separated me from them and their hard, even desperate lives.
Later, in the storied Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tsavo National Park, we learned about the immense human pressures on Kenya's wild places, where farmers and nomadic herders compete with tourists and armed rangers for space and survival. We realized that conservation comes down to the fundamental challenge of meeting human needs without destroying the natural base upon which those humans depend -- a tall order in any country, but especially one with an exploding population.
HCN's associate editor, Sarah Gilman, who assembled this special issue on natural resource education, had a similar revelation years ago on a field course offered by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. The Semester in the West program, still going strong after a decade, allowed Gilman and her fellow green-leaning college students to experience the West through the eyes of a variety of people: ranchers, water developers, federal land managers, environmental activists and many others. It gave them more visceral and nuanced experiences than they ever could have received in a lecture hall. And many have carried that awareness of the complex relationship between human and natural needs into their adult working lives.
Today, many educational organizations and institutions offer incredible learning opportunities -- both in the field and the classroom -- for students to dig into the West's meaty issues. That goes beyond wildlife studies; it also includes surging energy development and the sometimes controversial academic universe it's created, as documented by longtime HCN contributors Joshua Zaffos and Jeremy Miller.
Every New Year, many of us resolve to become better, smarter and more useful citizens. With this issue, we've done our best to spark your educational interest. Even so, we ran out of room, so I hope you will take some time to peruse this issue's especially robust advertising section, perhaps exploring some programs on your own. Better yet, share this issue with the young people you know. After all, they are the ones who will inherit the increasingly daunting task of accommodating the West's ever-growing human presence while protecting its beauty and wildlife.© High Country News