Round River pushes kids out of their comfort zones and into the field

  • Dennis Sizemore, who with Doug Peacock founded Round River Conservation Studies.

    Courtesy Round River Conservation Studies
  • Round River students travel around the globe, including to places like Ecuador.

    Courtesy Round River Conservation Studies
  • Round River students hiking in Northern British Columbia.

    Courtesy Round River Conservation Studies

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HCN: One of your longest-running student programs is with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in northwestern British Columbia. How did you get involved with them?

Sizemore: While we were working on the B.C. Coast (on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign, a collaborative effort to protect the forest from commercial logging), I was at a workshop Greenpeace had put together about working with (First Nations). They had it at an all-vegetarian place on Cortes Island. I walked in and noticed this Indian woman, Joan Jack, off to the side eating a pork chop. I went up to ask her where the hell she got that pork chop because I wanted a pork chop, too.

It was really the Jack family that invited us to the Taku River watershed and to meet their people, the Taku River Tlingit. We got involved in 1999 and students have been there ever since. Very early on, students helped re-open one of the traditional trails from the village down to the Nakina River. Historically, families had walked down to the river in late June and early July, did their fishing, and smoked fish that they would bring back. It was about a 35-mile walk. (A mining company) proposed a 99-mile road across the Taku River, and it would have crossed that trail. That was really where the community's resolve got strengthened, by walking that trail, telling stories.

The Taku River Tlingit took the government (to court), and ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. … (A land-use plan creating protected areas in Taku River Tlingit territory and banning commercial logging in most of it) was finally signed by the premier in 2011. Now, we're in the implementation phase, and are helping them build their own conservation department.

HCN: What does Round River offer students that other conservation or study-abroad programs don't?

Sizemore: It's not a canned summer camp. Sometimes things get sloppy. Sometime governments change, and they tell you to get the fuck (out). You basically always have to renegotiate your memorandum of understanding. We try to expose (students) as much as possible to the complicated dynamics and the amount of time it takes to do quality research.

HCN: Do you remember any particularly challenging situations students have confronted?

Sizemore: We had one group in Namibia, there were horrendous desert winds blowing, which are like a hairdryer in your face, for several days. (The wind) literally blew camp away. Then camp was flooded. (In Namibia there are) these little beetles that show up after big rains and basically land on you and put a little drop of acid on you, which burns a bit. It was kind of like we had pestilence. I remember this one kid was pretty upset. I asked him what was wrong and he said, "We're really behind schedule with the research and we've really got to get going."

Also, we've had students who are wildlife majors and their whole life have been gung-ho about being the next George Schaller, or whatever. And they get out there and go, "God, this is hard -- sweaty, hot. I hate this. There are bugs everywhere, and I want to go back and get a business degree."

HCN: Do others go on to work in conservation?

Sizemore: A great deal do. (But) it's also important to have math or finance majors that are now running banks who have a conservation ethic. In some ways, that's probably more important -- to have people from different backgrounds have a seminal conservation experience. When they vote or do something later, perhaps seeing that grizzly in the Taku, they'll hearken back to that.

HCN: How do you see Round River and its students contributing to conservation in the West in the future?

Sizemore: We had a student called Dan MacNulty who was on our very first student program in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Dan is now (a wildlife ecologist) at Utah State University, and did his Ph.D research in Yellowstone on the reintroduction of the wolf.

Our biggest failure, I believe, is that the majority of our students come from Northeastern and Midwestern schools, and some West Coast schools, primarily because our tuition and fees are high -- it's $15,000 to go to Namibia with us. We have Namibian, Taku River Tlingit and Chilean students, but they're all homegrown and put into the local programs. We have been trying to build up a scholarship fund, but we have not been very good at that. (And) a lot of the universities we get our students from, they're required to study abroad, and going to Wyoming doesn't count.

HCN: Your new program in Wyoming involves studying pine beetle outbreaks and the impacts of climate change on pikas in the Wind River Mountains. Of all the places in the West to work, why there?

Sizemore: We didn't end up doing that program last summer because we couldn't get any students interested in it -- I think because it's not international. (But) we selected the Winds largely because if there are going to be refugia from climate change for things like grizzly bears and whitebark pine, it will be in the Winds.

Note: The Wind River program did run in 2010 and is open for 2013 applications.