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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.