Lessons Learned Over a 40-year Career in Academia
Professor Lloyd Burton is retiring in May 2016 after 30 years at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. He reflects on his career, his hopes for the future of the profession, plans for retirement, and what we can learn from the Native American and indigenous peoples who have been central to his work.
What sparked your interest in public affairs? What made you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?
It probably happened when I was in Vietnam. I enlisted in the Navy Hospital Corps six weeks out of high school, in the summer of 1964. At the time, I was contemplating a career in medicine and wanted first-hand experience providing medical services. I was in boot camp when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred that initiated our large-scale involvement in Vietnam.
By the time I came home from the war I had come to realize that the kinds of ills that we were suffering as a nation were far greater than just the routine medical ones, and so I decided I wanted to become involved in making public policies that were going to have a governing influence over our lives going forward.
Did you have a mentor who inspired you early in your career?
In my senior year of college I had the honor of serving as congressional intern in the Washington, D.C., offices of Morris Udall, my congressional representative from southern Arizona. I probably learned more about environmental law and policy than perhaps I wanted to know! Mo was a committee member, and later would become chair, of what was called the Insular Affairs Committee. It has legislative jurisdiction over all the agencies of the Department of the Interior, including the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.
Mo had a particular interest in and had me monitoring all legislation affecting American Indian tribes, Eskimos, Aleuts, and other indigenous peoples whose lives were affected by the decisions of the Interior Department.
I had tremendous admiration for Mo. He was a master of realpolitik but he also was a very principled leader. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to see the West and the nation become. I worked hard for him and feel very blessed to have had that opportunity
Working for Mo was a powerfully enriching experience, and while it was sobering it also really inspired and motivated me to continue to become involved in law and public affairs, with a particular focus on the environment going forward.
What other experiences influenced your career path?
In the college I attended in Arizona they had contracted out the athletic program to the Colorado Outward Bound School. So, instead of team sports we learned rappelling, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and skills like that. By the time I finished college with a bachelor’s degree in government I found that my only marketable skills were those in outdoor leadership!
For three years I ran an Outward Bound-style wilderness program for troubled youth in northern California. I had moved to the Bay Area and this program was offered through the extension division at U.C. Berkeley.
So I ran this program in the Ventana Wilderness and Big Sur, then up in the Sierra Nevadas. It was a real opportunity to spend some time out of doors doing things I loved. I was still kind of decompressing from my Vietnam experience, but it continuously reaffirmed my interest in devoting my energies somehow or another to conservation and taking care of the environment.
Then I managed to get myself into a newly established Ph.D. program in jurisprudence and Social Policy within the School of Law at U.C. Berkeley. I was in the charter class and was actually its first graduate. I wrote my dissertation, which became my first book, on the water rights of American Indian tribes.
For my dissertation I did field work in the Southwest. That’s the region where I grew up and, thanks to my internship with Representative Udall, I already had a lot of background knowledge on the natural resource rights (or lack thereof) of the tribes. I spent my childhood in the mountains outside of Tucson, and the schools I went to had a lot of students who were Yaqui Indians, Hopis and Pimas, and there was a big Chicano population. I grew up in an environment of tremendous cultural diversity with a heavy emphasis on indigenous people, so that’s my background from early childhood going forward.
This life experience in indigenous cultural environments also influenced the writing of my second book, Worship and Wilderness, about the management of sacred sites and resources on the public lands
On earning my Ph.D. in 1984, I looked for jobs in the greater Bay Area, but that was like trying to sell a bucket of the sand in the Sahara Desert. So I went on the job market. I taught for a year at U.C. Berkeley and two years at U.C. Davis. Then I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse here at the School of Public Affairs.
You joined the SPA faculty in 1986. What are some of your favorite memories of your time here?
There are two things that I’ve come to appreciate about the School of Public Affairs and why I was drawn to it and stayed here.
First off, my own Ph.D. program was interdisciplinary, even though it was housed in the School of Law. I was able to take courses from leading scholars throughout the Berkeley campus in a variety of disciplines. So I really found that interdisciplinary environment a rich one, because I came to the conclusion that no one discipline has all the answers.
One of the things that I really appreciate and continue to appreciate about the School of Public Affairs is its multidisciplinary nature. You really get perspectives from a variety of different fields that are brought to bear on the same problem, which I find very useful.
The other thing is being here allowed me to grow as a scholar, both in terms of my own research and in terms of academic degree program development. I started teaching courses in environmental law and policy within two years of arriving here, and in the early 1990s I had the opportunity to go ahead and found the first degree program concentration here in the school: the concentration in environmental policy, management and law.
I was founding director and have continued to chair the program from that point to this.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
In environmental policy, management and law we have this network of alums that gradually grew over the years. Many are now more senior in their field, and now the environmental program is well enough known that these alums generated by the program over the last 20-plus years are hiring our current graduates because they know what they’re getting, which is much the same training they had.
A multi-disciplinary background in environmental law and policy also opened up some rich opportunities for comparative and international research as well. My first sabbatical was a Fulbright research and teaching appointment to the faculty of the University of Auckland, which resulted in publications comparing American Indian resource law and policy with that of the Maori — New Zealand’s indigenous people. My second was in Thailand, studying the influence of Theravada Buddhism on Thai environmental policy and management. And my most recent ones have been in Australia and in the Spanish province of Catalonia, where I served as a visiting scholar on the faculty of the law school at the University of Barcelona.
I also worked with a constitutional law professor up in Boulder in the early 1990s and we co-authored a memorandum of agreement to establish a dual degree program between the M.P.A. and the J.D. in the School of Law. That’s been in place now for about 20 years as well and we have a steady stream — maybe an average one or two per year — that come through that dual degree program. It’s also allowed me to be in continuous interface with scholars at the Law School and continue to do some stuff that is of interest to me with colleagues up there.
More recently, I worked with some faculty both here and in the geography department to bring the program concentration in emergency management and homeland security into being within SPA.
So I think that in terms of my contributions to the school, probably founding and directing these degree program concentrations and the dual degree program are the things that I find most personally rewarding to have been able to engage in.
One of my more significant research and teaching accomplishments is that in 2004 I received a seven-year grant from the National Park Service to train American Indian college students to serve as cultural resource interpreters at parks and monuments in the Intermountain West that their tribes have a traditional cultural affiliation with.
So I would train the students, along with National Park Service staff, on how to put together interpretive presentations and slide shows and how to tell their culture’s story to the extent that their elders felt it was appropriate to do so. I found over the course of those seven years that I learned at least as much from the students as anything I may have had to teach them. It was a really rich experience.
The program fell to the budget axe around 2010 or so, but it was a very popular program while it was going, both with the students and certainly with the parks and monuments that hosted the students. The interpretive programs were immeasurably enriched by what they had to offer.
Are there any research projects that you didn’t get to or wish you could have done?
As I draw near the end of my career at SPA, in recent years more and more of my research has been at the interface between environmental law and policy and disaster management law and policy, with a focus on catastrophic natural disasters — mostly wildfires — in the American West. This work, informed by my sabbaticals in Australia and Mediterranean Spain, also resulted in my latest book (published last fall), Cassandra’s Curse: the Law and Foreseeable Future Disasters.
As I’ve done this research and teaching in the realm of disaster management, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who are already fairly senior or at mid-level in the realm of disaster management: incident commanders from the National Forest Service firefighting service, hotshot crew members, crew bosses and others with substantial field experience putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their fellow citizens and the natural environment.
As they’ve talked about their work in the field and some of the challenges they face, and told me some of their stories, what I also began to hear was the emotional and perhaps spiritual toll doing that kind of work takes on them. It took me back to my first years back from Vietnam, when I suffered from what many years later would come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
I eventually discovered a Buddhist meditation practice — mindfulness meditation, or insight meditation — that proved crucial in helping me heal through that event. I host a meditation group now that has a lot of combat veterans in it. More recently, I’m also having emergency medical technicians and other emergency responders, along with people like the firefighters I’ve met in my classes.
I started to do research on this and came to discover that the psychological toll that an entire fire season — which now is about 6 months long — of relentless, on-the-line wildland firefighting seems to take approximately the same emotional toll as being in combat. The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, the suicide rate, the single-car fatal accident rate, severe substance abuse, depression, domestic violence: those rates among wildland firefighters much more closely approximate those of returning combat veterans than they do the general population.
A former Ph.D. student of mine who was a member of a hotshot crew in northern California told me that a lot of people actually have to leave because they are carrying a heavy emotional burden that goes largely unacknowledged and unresponded to. During his time at SPA, this student needed to leave briefly to attend the funeral of one of his former hotshot crew members, who had committed suicide.
If I had another career to go, or another 10 years in this one, I’d dig much more deeply into that. I really hope that the firefighting agencies sit up and take better notice of this than has been the case up until now.
What advice would you give someone who is considering a Master of Public Administration degree? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of your profession?
One thing that they should expect is that the only constant is going to be change. I think before too much longer we’re going to begin to emerge from this era when there is so much negative rhetoric and discourse directed toward governmental service, and more recognition of the need for us to better support and more wisely accomplish the objectives of government rather than simply whining about government services that don’t meet everyone’s individual needs or just bad mouthing government in general. It’s a very unfortunate aspect of American political discourse at this point in time.
In the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall he tells the story about this couple having dinner at a restaurant in the Catskills. One says, “You know, the food here is terrible!” and the other says, “Yes, and they don’t give you enough either!” That’s rather like the attitude a lot of people have toward government.
I think it’s a pretty exciting time right now, actually. You can’t name a major environmental issue that’s not without controversy these days, but there’s an awful lot in play right now. I very much agree with observers from throughout the disciplines who view climate change as probably the single most serious, significant and immediate environmental threat that we all face. I think that as the science continues to mount it is going to become ever more clear, and it’s going to involve a really fundamental rethinking of how we generate energy: how we warm and cool ourselves, how we transport ourselves.
That has major implications for the economy here in Colorado, for employment here in Colorado, for the role of government in partnership with the private sector here in Colorado, as well as nationally and internationally. Those are huge challenges and I think that they’re imminently solvable ones if there is sufficient will to do so and if we have well-trained, motivated people in government who are devoted to see positive change come about.
What comes next? What are your plans for retirement?
I think that’s the most frequently asked question I get. I think people are somehow concerned that after stepping down from a career of fairly intense activity that somehow or another I’m just going to veg out and decompose on my couch.
For the last 40 years, since I entered graduate school, I’ve been “doing” intensely. I think that at least for the first few months after retirement I want to focus less on doing and more on being. Simply taking the time to appreciate each day for what it has to offer: enjoying my family and friends and neighbors, and doing more of the things that I used to like to do only in my spare time, or only in the summers. Certainly more time out of doors, reinvigorating my interest in and my skills in the realm of conservation photography and environmental photojournalism.
I’m training myself now to volunteer at a nearby state park that I go to a lot to canoe and watch the birds. The park that I’m interested in, Barr Lake, has recently been given a tipi, so I’m working with the staff now to develop a curriculum for the volunteers there on the history, homes and lifeways of the indigenous peoples of the Colorado prairie. I hope to bring some of the background that I have from my academic life to bear on helping the public get to know their parks better: what their histories are and how to more deeply enjoy what they have to offer.
The 1964 Wilderness Act says that its objective is to maintain the wild areas in their pristine condition, “… untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” They evidently wrote that without too much regard for the fact that the North American continent has been continuously inhabited for about 12,000 years. Every region of the country had indigenous peoples living in it, and there’s some kind of wisdom in those cultures that has in fact allowed them to survive for the last 12,000 years, including surviving European colonization in the Americas.
I think there’s tremendous wisdom in indigenous cultures that we still have a lot to learn from if we’re going to be around for the next 12,000 years.