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

I am in school, watching a grown man cry.

He works at a clinic in the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border. He tells me and 22 other visiting college students what happened to local farmers one season, when the federal government shut off their irrigation water to protect endangered fish during a drought. He is counting divorces, cases of depression, heart attacks. He is counting suicides. "Fish are as important as people," he says. "Fish are not more important than people."

I am in school, ankle-deep in dust fine as flour.

Nevada's Crescent Valley palms up to blue mountains that close around it like fingers. "Do not enter" is painted in red across the closed door of a ramshackle structure without walls. On the ground: abandoned sleeping bags snagged in sage; two running shoes, a step apart; a broken telescope; sun-faded clothes.

A wind-battered sign rising against the sky proclaims "Newe Sogobia" –– land never ceded to the United States in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The Western Shoshone's claim to millions of ancestral acres.

What is not here: the cattle belonging to the Native women who ranched this area in defiance of the feds -- seized days before by the Bureau of Land Management. What is not here: the earth scraped from the nearby Cortez Gold Mine, leached of its riches with no payment to the tribe.

It's the fall of 2002 and I am learning an unsettling version of the region where I grew up, on Whitman College's first Semester in the West. The traveling field program, offered to students at the Walla Walla, Wash., school, explores public-lands issues in nearly every Western state. Over three months, we visit, eat and camp with people on opposite sides of fights over grazing and mining, species protection and energy. Often, I realize how little I know, discover that those I disagree with aren't so different from me. Sometimes speakers fall through, or we offend them. Sometimes gear blows away and we find it high in trees, or not at all.

Slowly, I come to see the conflicting human claims to plains, mountains and deserts as features of the battered landscape itself, features that can't be ignored if any attempt to heal it is to succeed. This is why, four years later, I choose low-paid, head-bonkingly difficult work as a journalist -- to tell stories that, I hope, help others see this layered world more clearly, and become more compassionate environmental citizens because of it.

I think of this one chilly October night in 2012, as I drive to my 10-year Semester in the West reunion at Comb Ridge, an 80-mile-long cornice of sandstone west of Bluff, Utah. When I get there, I intend to find the professor responsible, wag my finger in his face and say, "Phil Brick, this is all your fault."

A tall, wry Minnesotan with a crest of unruly dark hair, Brick joined Whitman in 1990 to teach international politics. But many of the Communist nations he focused on soon collapsed, and in 1992 he began switching to the American West -- "another place," he chuckles, "where conflict was central." He took students on camping field trips to northeastern Oregon and the Great Basin, learning the tricky nuances of environmental politics along with them. Eventually, his approach morphed into Semester in the West -- confronting students with resource conflicts that appeared simple in the abstract but became "irresolvable conundrums" on the ground.

That first year, Brick says he often flew "by the seat of my pants" and traveled too far -- nearly 10,000 miles. We crammed into three Suburbans, poring over readings as we drove to meet restoration-minded ranchers and loggers, conservative local politicians, property-rights advocates, environmental activists, writers, pragmatic ecologists, Vegas union bosses, a ranger who put us to work cutting down tamarisk -- nearly 90 speakers in all. Brick, along with our writing professor and our logistical guru, led the way in an F-250, hauling our gear in a horse trailer that doubled as computer lab.

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