American roadtrip with a twist: two women travel the nation to see climate adaptation in action


There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or perhaps you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine, catsup bottle and box of raisins.

Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning Masters degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people – from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors – are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change. “We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that we find boring and not relevant, about whether climate change is actually happening or not,” says Goldstein. “And then, we really just wanted to go on a road trip,” Howard says with a laugh.

So it is that the pair is now looping the nation over three months, documenting various approaches and sharing them through written stories, videos, audio slideshows and more with the aim of getting the public engaged, spreading good ideas and helping inspire further innovations. (Here’s a map that shows where they’ve been and where they’re going.)

Kirsten Howard (left) and Allie Goldstein pose with their mighty steed.

By the time Goldstein and Howard rolled up to High Country News headquarters in Colorado’s North Fork Valley in Goldstein’s mom’s mini-van last week, they had already driven from Michigan to the Eastern Seaboard and down the coast to Louisiana. They stopped to check out everything from a solar power company on Long Island whose business is booming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to Georgian farmers who are adapting more efficient irrigation methods to ride out expected increases in drought.

The Western leg of the Adaptation Road Trip had just begun. Goldstein and Howard were fresh from Santa Fe, where they learned about the confluence of factors fueling today’s Southwestern megafires. They caught up with Bill Armstrong, who was the fuels specialist program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest back when Jodi Peterson wrote for HCN about federal efforts to allow fire back into ecosystems thrown out of whack by nearly a century of fire suppression. “He showed us the stark landscapes where the Cerro Grande and Los Conchas fires burned,” and explained how prescribed burns and careful thinning projects might help keep some forests from being burned beyond recovery, says Howard. “But it was a pretty depressing message that he had. He thought that the Forest Service was not doing enough prescribed burning to make any difference in the future.”

After spending some time talking to North Fork Valley farmers about how they’re coping with late spring frosts killing early-blooming fruit crops, Howard and Goldstein are headed next to Aspen to learn about how climate is affecting snowpack (see HCN’s coverage of what that community and others are doing to fight and prepare for climate change here).  Then they’ll move on to Denver to explore how local water authorities are collaborating with federal officials to protect the forests that surround watersheds (see HCN’s coverage of that topic here). Tucson, Ariz. will be next, then up the West Coast, and through Glacier National Park to learn how officials there communicate with visitors about the disappearance of the park’s storied glaciers, and ultimately back to Ann Arbor, Michigan by the end of August.

Between the interviewing, driving, writing, editing, and traveling in just about every conveyance imaginable -- four-wheeler, canoe, boat, paddleboard (accompanied by dolphins) – as well as sampling dried shrimp (basically the arthropod equivalent of beef jerky) and other delicacies along the way, Howard admits the pair has been getting minimal sleep and doesn’t expect that to change any time soon. But it is, she assures us, enough to drive safely on.

To follow their trip as it wends through the West, check out their Great American Adaptation Road Trip blog.

Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor.

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