A Semester in the Wild West, and How it Changed Us

Field programs give college kids a new perspective on public lands
Erik Lyon/Courtesy Semester in the West

SITW students explore rare sandstone in Nevada with writer Craig Childs.

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, Washington, 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.

We muddled through tangled perspectives and facts in papers and independent projects, with help from a small library and spotty satellite uplink and solar power. And we leaned on each other, chewing over ideas in our outdoor kitchen or sprawled on sleeping pads in the grass. In the evenings, we'd gather in a circle of camp chairs and often share "epiphanies"—moments of revelation and clarity translated into short essays exploring everything from the realization of what U.S. consumerism costs Mexican workers after a visit to Juarez's maquiladoras, to the sudden knowledge that a visually beautiful place was in fact sick with invasives and extinction.

Today, 130 students later, the so-called Westies have reliable Internet and electricity, and even put together podcasts. Climate change is now the program's central theme, along with restoration and ecosystem resilience. This fall, students spent several days with tortoise biologists, federal wildlife officials and solar employees, touring the construction site of Brightsource's 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar generating station in Southern California. They camped on the Navajo Nation at an elder's homestead, visited a Navajo activist who lives amid coal strip mines, toured the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and met Native workers there. Finally, they installed solar panels at an off-grid Navajo home.

"There are multiple realities here, no clear right and wrong," says Roger Clark, a program director with the Grand Canyon Trust, who connected Brick with Navajo speakers. Students must understand that "it's not as simple as preventing pollution." When you shut down a power plant without enough planning "people lose their livelihoods. But we will also ultimately run out of coal and run out of water to sustain this landscape through drought and climate change."

Seventy Westie alums make the reunion, scattered in satellite campsites across the slickrock around the trailer, coolers and camp tables that constitute the bustling kitchen. Between catching up on their changing lives, many share moments when their own expectations were upended. On the public-lands grazing portion of the program,'08 Westie Rosa Brey remembers Western Watersheds Program Executive Director Jon Marvel pointing out a dead burrowing owl in a stock tank on BLM land in Nevada. The weed-infested allotment he has shown students on nearly every program is bisected by a gullied, lifeless stream that runs 30 feet below the historic water table, thanks mostly to livestock grazing. "His argument was, 'These ranchers are so thoughtless. This landscape is just their tool,' " Brey recalls. Afterward, they visited Nevada ranchers Robin and Steve Boies, who spoke about their attempts to graze sustainably and agriculture's importance to rural economies. "They have such incredible stories of their lives on the landscape," says Brey, now outreach coordinator for the Colorado Canyons Association. "You think … what is the answer, and who in this position is doing the right thing?' "

The night the 2006 Westies first met Marvel, they ate burgers for dinner, remembers Clint Kalan, now a physician's assistant. "They were the kind you get at Walmart that come in a tube. We called them irony burgers."

Immersed in this grayer world, many students re-examined their own uncompromising green values. "You can't close your textbook on these issues at the end of the day, and they transform you," says '08 Westie Camila Thorndike, who recently worked with Imagine Greater Tucson, a collaborative land-use visioning effort. "I don't think that my position on any environmental issue was ultimately changed," adds Corey McKrill, an '02 Westie who has since worked for Grist.org and now builds websites. "But I've totally changed how I think those issues should be approached"—not necessarily with lawsuits, though they have their place, but with open ears and minds. After all, solutions rammed down peoples' throats are unlikely to last.

"I want them to be activists. But I want them to figure stuff out in ways that are respectful of the common interests that are always there," Brick tells me later. "If the complexity and confusion end in mindless relativism, then I've failed."

The program's focus on proactive problem-solvers and collaboration may help. In Wallowa County, Oregon, Westies visit Doug McDaniel—a 77-year-old former rancher and logger who, after decades of struggling for permits, has restored natural meanders to a channelized portion of the Wallowa River on his property, improving fish habitat. "These kids get really excited about that," McDaniel says. "You've got them thinking, 'Maybe we've got to look for the good role models in this thing.' "

In Utah, Westies assist Grand Canyon Trust ecologist Mary O'Brien with research to improve land management and support beaver restoration. "I never liked class exercises," says O'Brien—an elfin woman with a big laugh and close-cropped gray hair who's legendary for enthusiastically exclaiming things like, "Look at the size of this spider on my leg!" Students learn more from work with real impact, she says: The data Westies have gathered on poor aspen recruitment in heavily grazed areas is helping a collaborative group plan how to improve elk and livestock management. "I want people to see how ecology is done in the field," she adds. "I also want to convey that you can be an advocate and a darn good scientist. You read whatever's on the transect whether it meets your expectations or not."

Effective activism also requires generosity, O'Brien believes. "I tell my staff when we're going to meetings, 'I don't want to see you sitting with other environmentalists. Come a half an hour before it starts, be the last one to leave, shake hands with everyone.' If you come away really liking everyone there, you have a better chance of getting past rigid ways of thinking."

The knowledge that opponents can be partners helps keep students from feeling paralyzed by massive environmental problems. "Maybe we can't save the world, but we can save a watershed," says '08 Westie Erica Goad, who now studies the effects of exurban development on wildlife. "That concept of scale, and seeing the actors everyday who are doing just that, is something that keeps me hopeful."

"This is all pretty heavy stuff," I point out. "Is this what you were anticipating when you signed up?

"No," McKrill deadpans, as other Westies laugh. "I just wanted to be outside for three months."

"I heard there was whiskey," adds someone else.

If programs like this have a serious failing, it's that there aren't enough of them, they must be small, they can be expensive and they tend to reach already-privileged students. The barriers to greater participation are significant, says Wild Rockies Field Institute educator and outreach manager Bethany Swanson. As funding for higher education falters, it's harder to get financial aid and some schools are reluctant to allow students to apply it to domestic off-campus programs, she says. Meanwhile, as tuition costs rise, students are more wary of taking time from their traditional course of study to try something different if it means they must stay in school longer and spend more money.

Still, if even a few individuals are profoundly affected, these courses can have surprisingly broad reach. University of Colorado-Denver geography professor Gregory Simon—an experiential educator—enthusiastically tells me how a program called the Sierra Institute changed his life. He and his classmates explored the Four Corners, read and discussed books like Ed Abbey's classic Desert Solitaire, developed interdisciplinary projects and learned basic wilderness skills. When it ended, the economics major decided to attend graduate school in environmental science and management. He went on to offer others similar experiences through a field course in the Sierra Nevada that broke down traditional concepts of nature and introduced students to management conundrums at places like Owens Lake—drained by thirsty Los Angeles. This coming semester, he and a colleague are creating a course exploring the social and ecological dimensions of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned into Colorado Springs last summer.

Art professor Bill Gilbert has seen similar effects on students who participate in his Land Arts of the American West program at University of New Mexico, a semester-long traveling course focused on earth works, place-based art, and human alterations of the landscape, like Hoover Dam. Most continue to consider their environment and community in their artwork, and at least two have started their own field-based art programs.

When I hear this, I think of my fellow Westies. At the reunion, after hikes and desert-river swims, we go around the now-giant circle of chairs and tell the group about our lives. It's striking: Nearly all of us work in public service, mostly in the environmental sector—environmental law, activism, writing, film-making and mediation, land-use planning, teaching, working to change the Forest Service from the inside, field research, cross-border conservation, farming, solar power and more.

On the last night, we begin to say goodbyes as some alums head homeward. After those who remain polish off a massive pan of curry, '08 Westie Liz Townsend strums her guitar in the darkness and begins to sing, the rest of us howling along on the chorus, all of our voices lifting into the star-scattered sky:

"… and when I woke up from that dream

I was on the road again

leaving my new friends and their work plans.


Well, I wish I was a lady

But I'm a rambler

And I am gone …"

This essay first appeared in High Country News.

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