Mountain Research
Nov 11, 2016 · 7 min read

Late next summer, on August 23rd, while most of the campus is trying to figure out where to go for the first day of classes, 16 students, Professor Jeff Nichols, Professor Brent Olson, and a program coordinator will load a suitcase or two of books, a bunch of camping gear, and themselves into a couple of vans and a trailer. Instead of finding a seat in a classroom, we’ll hit the road on a grand tour of the American West.

We won’t simply be taking in the views and developing endless playlists though. The heart of the trip is an exploration into the issues at the heart of the contemporary West. Students on the trip will earn 16 credits in Environmental Studies and history. Four interlinked courses will create the intellectual map for the trip: Environmental Cooperation and Conflict, Landscape and Meaning, History of Public Lands, and The Native West (course descriptions below). We’ll spend our days becoming involved in issues related to these courses, talking to people, and immersing ourselves in the landscapes and cultures at stake in the future of the American West.

Applications for the program are now open. Apply here

While we discover and discuss Western issues, we’ll be building a rolling, learning community. This prolonged journey into the field will allow us to learn directly from landscapes and ecosystems as well as from people who live, work, and study in those places. Together, we expect to build a cohort of impassioned scholars with a particular breadth and depth of experiential knowledge equipped to create a better future for the West. We will learn in iconic, protected sites like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also in contentious places like the Little Bighorn and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge; working landscapes like the Butte copper mines; and communities from present-day Native nations to “New West” towns like Bend, Twisp, and Moab.

The Route

Our proposed route is an enormous figure eight, heading northwest first (because of potential early winter weather) and including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Course-related sites include sites of environmental/cultural conflict or cooperation (e.g., Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; East Tavaputs Plateau tar sands; Klamath River dams; the Berkeley Pit, the Nevada Test Site, Owens Lake); National Parks (e.g., Yellowstone, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood, Grand Canyon, Great Basin); wilderness areas (e.g., Bob Marshall, Glacier Peak); Native nations and sites (e.g., Burns Paiute, Coast Salish, Miwok, the Nez Perce trail, Colville, Pyramid Lake, Hopi); dam sites (e.g., Teton, Grand Coulee, Hoover, Hetch Hetchy, Snake River); and relevant towns/cities (e.g., Bozeman, Bend, Cody, Moab, Winthrop, Page).

We plan to camp about four of every five days with the fifth in a motel/lodge and a larger “city” visit every two weeks or so (or as weather dictates). At each site we will meet with local residents and experts (Native leaders, writers, scholars, activists, elected officials, and government land managers) and potentially perform applicable service (e.g., wilderness trail maintenance). We’ll return to Salt Lake City for Fall Break before returning to the road for the southwestern part of the loop. Students will work on a variety of assignments, including photo essays, journals, interviews, short-form essays, and longer research papers, many of which will be shared on social media and a website/blog as we travel and presented publicly when we return to campus. While our itinerary will be carefully planned, we’ll allow for the (safe and sane) serendipities of a good road trip.

Relevant Dates and other info

Info Meeting: November 21 @ 6:00 in the Environmental Center

Applications and Deposits Due: March 1, 2017

Register for the Fall Expedition: April 3

Costs: In addition to your regular tuition fees, we expect the cost for the expedition will be $6,848 for each student. This is just a bit more than the college’s budget for room and board for students living off campus (but please see notes 2 and 3 below). A few notes about this fee:

  • The costs are all inclusive. They include meals, campsites, hotels, park entrance fees and other programing fees, transportation/etc.
  • The course fee will be listed by the school as a lodging and travel fee (akin to room and board) and so you will be able to use financial aid to cover the costs of the semester. We’re working with folks on campus to make this as seamless as possible.
  • We are actively fundraising for the trip in order to reduce this cost. As we have budgeted the trip, we have done so in a way that the costs of the trip will not increase, we do believe however that the costs may come down through fundraising efforts.
  • We want this trip to be available to as many people as possible, if you feel that costs will prohibit you from coming on the trip, please be in touch with us to see if there is something that we can arrange.
  • If you’d like to support students who want to go on the trip, please consider donating to the Go Fund Me page. All donations made there will go directly to reducing student costs.

Course Descriptions

(prereqs for all courses are ENVI 101 or a HIST WCore course)

Landscape and Meaning:

This course will examine the link between the landscapes of the West and the cultural meanings attached to them. The natural landscapes that surround us contain a world of meaning. The earth is home, habitat, playground, resource, waste-sink. It is seen as dangerous and peaceful, bountiful and depleted, crowded and open. Places like Yellowstone National Park, the Nez Perce Trail, the Atomic Test site, or the expanses of the Bitterroot mountains carry with them profound histories and meanings the often confound their natural appearance. How do we reconcile these contradictions? What do they mean in terms of the cultural and political ecologies of particular places? How do the cultural values we attach to natural landscapes challenge our understandings of their history and our own involvement in the natural world? By looking at the cultural geography of the environment we can analyze how the meanings of nature are actively created and why it is contested by different people in different places. And, perhaps most importantly, why it matters.

In this course students will examine these landscapes of meaning in person. They will hear from experts, managers, and discuss the contested meanings that surround them. Students will prepare questions for guest lecturers, write descriptive field notes while observing and participating in social life, reflect on interviews and field notes through exploratory essays, write critical reviews of existing relevant research, and complete an original analysis of a cultural landscape that incorporates properly-cited primary and secondary source material. Students may take pictures, video, or record sounds and present them to the public on the expedition blog.

The Native West

Native peoples inhabited all of the American West; today’s Native nations exercise sovereignty over fragments of their former territory. This course investigates the “Native history” of some of the West, based upon the Expedition itinerary. For example, Blackfeet were displaced from Glacier and Sheepeaters from Yellowstone, now iconic parts of the National Park system. Students will also visit contemporary Native nations and investigate their roles in land-use issues. For example, the Klamath Reservation was “terminated” in the 1950s, but some Klamath peoples successfully regained their legal tribal status and have asserted their rights to water and fish under nineteenth century treaties.

Students will hear from Native peoples, public lands managers, scholars, and activists along our route. They will research Native history in primary and secondary sources, prepare questions for guest lecturers/speakers, and present to the class as well as post their writing, photographs, video, and sound recordings on the Expedition blog.

History of Public Lands

In 1872 the U.S. Congress declared the Yellowstone region the world’s first “national park.” In 1916 Congress created the National Park Service, “which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Today the Park Service manages over 400 “units” with more than 20 different designations — including national parks, monuments, historical parks, military parks, preserves, recreation areas, seashores, parkways, lakeshores, and reserves — and nations around the world have created their own versions of “national parks.”

This course will investigate the “national park” idea and its implications for natural and human history. Why did Wallace Stegner call this “America’s best idea?” What and who are parks for? What have been the implications of national park designation for Native Americans? For wildlife? For American history and culture? How do historians answer such questions?

Environmental Conflict and Cooperation

Wars, ambushes, evictions, occupations, political and personal arguments, murders, feuds. The Environmental History contemporary social context of the west is full of conflict. But it is also full cooperation, agreement, help, love, encouragement, and collaboration. In this course we will visit the sites of this conflict and cooperation. We’ll talk to actors in the debates and the process and look to understand the context of the conflict and the hope behind the cooperation as people look to address the wide range of environmental issues across the West. The sites we visit will be driven by the itinerary of the trip, current events, and the availability of guest speakers.

The Mountain Commons

A publication of the Institute for Mountain Research @ Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah

Mountain Research

Written by

The Institute for Mountain Research at Westminster College | Study Up

The Mountain Commons

A publication of the Institute for Mountain Research @ Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah

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