Austin Gilbert: Closing Thoughts

11214095_1032122926800240_7559150179455135410_nOur month-long bike tour across Montana is coming to an end. We stop for lunch just outside the park and, inevitably, go for a much-needed swim in the Flathead River. As I ease myself into the cold water, suddenly I forget my frustrations from the last couple of days. Heat, hunger, traffic, and exhaustion no longer matter to me. I am content to enjoy the cool water and beautiful surroundings of Glacier National Park.

Glacier is nothing new to me. I have lived in Montana for about seventeen years, and visit the park often. While we were in Helena a couple weeks ago, I saw some framed, unmarked photographs on the wall in a local wine shop. I instantly recognized them as being from the park, so I asked the shopkeeper about them. Although I hadn’t had the confidence to say anything specific, it turns out I had correctly identified both the trails the pictures were taken from. The true beauty of this park, for me, is that no matter how many times I visit, I never cease to be amazed. Sometimes, I have to restrain myself from taking pictures of the same peaks and streams that I have already photographed hundreds of times before. It is certainly a very special place.

Visiting Glacier also makes me feel very small. It makes one realize how insignificant we are, as humans. It is difficult to fathom the sheer power and time it took to create this magnificent place.  Our world, in various states, has been around for much longer than is easy to imagine. All of human history is but a small dot on the timeline of the Earth. We are so insignificant compared to nature that I can begin to see why many people are skeptical that we could have any noticeable impact. Of course, I am talking about climate change.

Unfortunately, it seems clear that human activities do contribute to climate change, and therefore the changing ecosystems here in Glacier National Park. If we were causing these changes in a more obvious, tangible way, there would be an uproar.  But climate change is subtle, intangible, and shrouded in uncertainty. It is difficult for a layman to conclusively identify the effects, especially when they are masked by the variations of local weather. A walk to the beach won’t reveal a slowly rising ocean, a day hike won’t shed light on climbing timber lines, and a skyward glance can’t expose the pollution in our air. This makes addressing climate change a lot more of a challenge. By the time these changes are clearly apparent, it may be too late.

Sometimes our future can look very bleak. The world’s proven fossil fuel reserves are nearly five times that of what some scientists believe we can safely burn and still have a reasonable chance of keeping average global temperature rise below 2˚C. There is an extraordinary economic incentive to continue depending on fossil fuels – the necessary infrastructure for and reliance on fossil fuels has been built up for over two centuries. This also makes the possibility of a quick transition to alternative energy sources seem unlikely. If fossil fuels were the most convenient energy source and it still took us two hundred years to develop the system to where we are now, how could we possibly speed up the process to develop a new system in less than half a decade?  Can we truly reduce global emissions enough to see a difference?

However, as I sit here in the park, surrounded by age-old mountain peaks, I am somehow more optimistic. I wonder; if we are powerful enough to unwittingly change nature for the worse… what sort of positive change might we be capable of? Sure, a global energy revolution has never happened before in such a short time, but by no means does that mean it is impossible. It will not be easy; but we are a cause of climate change. So surely if we put our mind to it, we are capable of doing something about climate change. We just have to make that choice.


Cory Horton: Change is Possible

11041211_1032123086800224_4029413349476173955_nOver the past four weeks, I have learned a great deal about climate change. It has become apparent to me that this is the biggest and most difficult issue that the world faces today. There have been many analogies drawn between this movement and successful movements of the past. Abolition, women’s rights, the civil rights movement of the sixties, and gay and lesbian rights are all social movements that have seen success in the past.

However, climate change, as I see it, is much different than these examples. For one it is an issue that needs to be addressed by the global population. Moreover, if addressing climate change is met with success, it will affect everyone on the planet, not a specific group of people, as past movements have. Lastly, it is a call to change our global systems to benefit those who do not yet have a voice. Past movements have been fought for by groups that would see immediate benefit. To successfully incite a dramatic trend of reducing carbon emissions and the restoration of greenhouse gas levels to near pre industrial levels, the fight must be fought on many fronts.

First is the need to realize and educate ourselves of our personal consumption and activities, as well as the impact of these activities. Market forces are what drive a majority of carbon emissions. Driving these markets are individual choices. If we want the chance to address climate change we must become aware how each of our purchases drive this fossil fuel based world. If we begin to educate and inquire into these purchases and how they play out, and the factors that go into making them possible, we can learn how we are connected, and driving, this carbon emitting economy. This knowledge will give individuals the ability to make more responsible personal choices. These choices include how we transport ourselves, how we eat, how we recreate, and how we are entertained. When all of these individual choices are added up it is possible that they can make a significant impact on carbon emissions.

Next we must call on our politicians and policy makers. This will require some research into the specific issues of your nation, region and community. Through educating ourselves we will be able to find the areas where our voice can be most effective. So far, there has been very little action taken by leaders to address climate change. Though there have been numerous climate summits, there has been no success to reach any binding agreements between nations. Without a binding agreement, each nation has been allowed to continue to make choices that contribute to climate change. Though the science is relatively clear, there has been a continued neglect of this very serious issue. However, through pressure by citizens, there is hope that leaders will wake up to the severity of this situation, as well as the desire for progress to be made.

There are many ways that climate change progress can be made. It will take collective action which is difficult; however, it has been seen in the past, many times. The time for action has never been more apparent. We must educate ourselves on the ways our personal and collective choices impact markets and leaders. With enough concern, voice and inquiry there is hope that global progress can be made.

Madalyn Lupinek: Who Invited the Lake Trout to the Party?

leviIf you’ve ever experienced an uninvited guest taking up all the food and space at a gathering and making everything uncomfortable, then you’ll understand the annoyance of the situation explained in this blog post. Flathead Lake is the gathering and lake trout are the uninvited guests. The lake trout is an invasive species in Flathead Lake and it’s taking all the food and space away from native bull trout. Even worse, the lake trout attack bull trout and prey on them at their own gathering. In ecological terms, the lake trout is outcompeting the bull trout, greatly reducing the bull trout population.

We headed out to Flathead Lake on a gorgeous sunny day, making the issue hit even closer to home. I feel a strong connection to bodies of water after growing up near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, as well as the Great Lakes later in life. It’s sad to me that the natural balance of this beautiful place is off. Seeing such unique serenity on the landscape made me want to restore that same serenity under the water. We had the opportunity that day to hear from speakers of two perspectives – cultural and ecological. Both perspectives offered up great insight on this lingering problem.

We first heard from Germaine White, an education and information specialist of the wildland recreation and natural resources department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). She spoke to us next to Flathead Lake on that gorgeous day. It set the scene for some really eloquent insight on the cultural side of saving bull trout. What really resonated with me was when she said, “People were happy and content. There was abundance. Our food is our food.” By this, I believe she’s explaining the cultural relationship between people and animals. This seemed to be her main value for restoring the bull trout. Restoring food, natural balance, and health to this place is important because it’s the CSKT’s history, and their culture. It’s not just food- bull trout have intrinsic value for the CSKT.

Later that same day on Flathead Lake, we heard from Tom Bansak, a fisheries biologist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Like Germaine White discussed cultural implications, Tom Bansak discussed more of the lake’s ecology. He informed us that between 1890-1950, European settlers introduced 30 new species to Flathead Lake. In particular, the lake trout, white fish, and Mysis shrimp combined as an invasive trio to disturb the ecological equilibrium of Flathead Lake. The bull trout had been thought of as this major cannibalistic predator of Flathead Lake, but little did anyone know, the lake trout would eat fish as big as their own size, preying on the native species of this peaceful place. On a larger scale, aquatic invasive species like the lake trout harm the economy, environment, and recreation of the area, giving us all kinds of valuable reasons to save the bull trout.

So who’s going to kick the lake trout out of the party? According to a 2014 Environmental Impact Statement issued by the CSKT and titled “Proposed Strategies to Benefit Native Species by Reducing the Abundance of Lake Trout,” the proposed action is using a “combination of fisheries population management tools, including angling and netting”. Les Bigcrane, a wild land recreation manager for the CSKT alongside Germaine White, talked to us a bit on the same day we heard from Tom and Germaine. He informed us that the current fishing limit on lake trout is 100 per day, and some people will even catch that amount! That goes to show how abundant an aquatic invasive species can be, to what extent they can take over, and how much some members of the tribes want them gone. Les said they want to remove this limit, but for now have the best anglers helping to manage the lake. Fishing for lake trout provides a huge economic boost for the region. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks supports the lake trout for economic and recreational reasons, showing the extent to which invasive species can even permeate the economy. There’s been an increase in harvest of lake trout, but there hasn’t been a decrease in population of lake trout or an increasing bull trout population to correspond. It may not be until a 50% or 75% reduction of lake trout that results will show.

This extensive issue is happening underneath the beautiful blue waters of Flathead Lake at the cost of a native species just trying to have fun at its own party. The bull trout is busy holding its own down there, so it’s up to us here on land to act on this cultural and ecological issue. No one wants to be the person to kick someone out of the party, but time is up for the lake trout. The natural balance of Flathead Lake and strong cultural roots of the CSKT need the bull trout restored.

Anna Tolle: Lessons Learned

anna_tolleA month ago, I left my life on hold back in Madison, Wisconsin to try something I’ve never done before. We are now at the end of our bike tour across Montana and I’m thinking about what I can do to apply what I’ve learned to my life back home.

Our tour started in Billings, MT and ended in West Glacier National Park. As you can imagine, a lot changes over 700 miles. We went from rugged prairies and vast pastures through huge forested valleys over countless hills to the Rocky Mountain Front and, finally, into the mountains themselves. Biking through all this definitely wasn’t easy. I struggled to keep up most of the time. But as I chugged along in slow gear, I realized that a lot more was changing than just the landscape. Not only was I becoming physically stronger from hauling 85+ pounds, I was also learning a lot and growing internally.

I’m an environmental studies student and a self-proclaimed hippie, so a lot of things we learned weren’t completely life-altering. But the lessons certainly were reinforcing. I can apply a lot of what I’ve learned here in Montana to my life back in Wisconsin. What’s interesting is because this course focuses on Montana and the West, it only counts as an elective back home at UW-Madison. I would argue that a lot of what we covered on this course is applicable in my city, state, and the mid-west in general, and this course has even sparked my interest in learning more about local and state energy policies in Wisconsin. A lot of Environmental Studies classes at UW are either focused on Wisconsin (frac sand mining, native water rights), or very broad and cover international topics (world hunger, deforestation). After taking this course I got a view of a part of my country that I hadn’t seen before, the great West, and I can apply this to my future studies. I now have a perspective that a lot of my fellow students don’t have and I feel lucky to be able to share that.

I can also apply a lot of what I’ve learned to my personal life. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an environmentalist, but I know there’s always more I can do. I bike almost everywhere in Madison, but sometimes I get lazy and drive to work in the rain or snow. After biking through Montana, I know I’m tough enough to handle the Madison hills and variable weather to get groceries and such, so I will definitely bike even more. Another thing I will do is change some of my consumptive habits and encourage my friends to do the same. Although we’ve read about how personal sacrifice doesn’t always wind up doing a great deal of good (“Forget Shorter Showers”), I still think it’s important to do what we can to consume less and model that behavior for others. We’ve also read about how we need more activism and social change, and I believe that has roots in small personal transformation. I’ve learned that it’s important to share my voice, not just with friends and family but with policymakers, too. I am now more prepared to share my voice and opinions with others about environmental issues that matter to me.

After biking so far, it’s time to take a little rest – but not for long. I’ll soon be back on my bike, back in Madison, even back in class before I know it. I will have to let the time pass as it must but I certainly won’t forget all the important lessons I learned on this course, and the amazing people who became my friends along the way.

Benjamin Rutherford: Nature’s Blessings

10906266_10207079178841713_3297876303887261083_nClouds are breaking up; a warm breath of air exposes a patch of sky through the dark overcast- then two and then three! Our group basks in the new sunshine, warming bones that have been chilled since last night’s rain infiltrated our tents. It is the afternoon of the third day of our stay at Telehogan, a Hopi oasis in the desert. Dorothy, our spry, elderly host has told us that the freshwater spring on the hillside has been watering her ancestors’ gardens for centuries. The lush terraces that she works could date as far back as the first millennium A.D. Throughout the three days that we’ve spent here, she has displayed a willingness to share her heritage and culture with our group of thirteen outsiders. In exchange for her perspective, we are helping her tend to her land: clearing brush, chopping firewood, removing invasive trees, cleaning her water storage cistern and, best of all, planting traditional Hopi heirloom corn in her dry-bed field.

Today marks the day where we dedicate our efforts to planting the corn. The group is split by gender; males tote rakes and Mattocks to clear the field while the women assemble seeds from the best stalks of last year’s harvest. Hopi spiritual beliefs go hand in hand with their agricultural practices. The seeds that they strip from the ears are said to have been genetically linked to those handed down from Masaw at the time of Hopi emergence. As I drive my pickaxe into the moist, sandy soil, I wonder how many generations of Hopi have done the same. This earth is ripe with tradition. Dorothy alone is the third generation of Butterfly Clan to grow traditional crops in this dry soil. About halfway through the brush clearing, a visitor joins us.

A red-tailed hawk has come in for a closer look, landing upon a cottonwood skeleton at our flank. As we swing our tools, the team of landscapers gapes at the sleek bird, which screams occasionally to remind us of its presence- a good omen we suppose. It remains perched throughout our work. Dorothy, accompanied by the rest of the women, arrive seeds in hand. Together, we finish clearing the shrubs and make quick work of the planting process. It feels right planting the seeds in such wet soil. Hopefully it is a sign of a healthy crop. All the while, our curious spectator, the hawk, watches closely, almost as if to supervise our work. The product must’ve sufficed, for near our final row of corn, it gave a final call and took flight- more pressing hawk business to tend to I suppose.

The remainder of the grey day passed. The rain petered out and blue skies became visible through clusters of puffy, saturated cumulonimbus clouds. As the evening drew near, Dorothy halted work. She recognized the need for students to meditate and decompress the day’s activities. When she turned us loose, she said, “Watch the sunset. Moisture in the sky makes for beautiful colors.” Her prediction did not disappoint. 11150844_10206575112639182_3206647384357038292_n

I took a cup of hohoise, a native herbal tea, to a prominent bluff on the edge of the oasis. Though I was seeking solitude, I was delighted to hear the faint laughter of my companions accompanied by Braden’s melodic narration on his guitar. The sun descended beneath the cottonball cloudline, illuminating the lingering light precipitation. The golden aura gave the entire wash valley an otherworldly hue, signifying the start of a special sunset.

The rain ceased, and it was time for the dwindling sunlight to warm our bodies and ignite our senses. The wet, painted desert released a refreshing aroma, grateful for the bounty of new water. The hills bordering our valley exploded into light, boasting a marvelous transition from yellow to auburn to violet, settling into a restful evening darkness. The clouds, once lamented, delightfully caught these tones, radiating the colors from within and below. Their dark centers no longer seemed so ominous as they flaunted the spectrum of the setting sun. The distant San Francisco Peaks were the last to catch the special transition of light. The deep purple lingered upon these sacred peaks, rejecting the night for just minutes longer. While over 150 miles to the west, they appeared as sharply as if we were in Flagstaff through the clear evening air. The desert between us, though infinitely vast, seemed surmountable.

As I was parting ways with the sun, bidding it adieu until the morning, our red-tailed friend returned to the cottonwood, no more that fifty feet from my seat. It too wished to watch the sun take leave beyond the horizon. In a swift primordial scream, it gave its wings a flutter. From the middle of its left wing came a large white feather, twirling to the ground like a propeller. I watched it crest the hill and took a bearing for my eventual retrieval. As I approached, the bird acknowledged my presence, though did not seem to mind the intrusion. Ever-attentive, it continued to watch as I reached for the feather beneath the tree. In my hand, I felt the warmth of the bird radiating from the down at its base, a testament to its recent separation. I felt an overwhelming sense of connectedness to the bird.

With evening nigh, I departed from the ancient cottonwood. Likewise, the hawk took to the air. It circled overhead twice; I could clearly see the absence of a feather in its wing, though it seemed to fly as agile as ever, making a beeline for the southern horizon. At the fire, I presented the feather to Dorothy. Not wanting to violate a cultural taboo, I asked permission to keep it as a token of my experience. She said that the feather was a blessing and that I ought hang onto it.

Thus, I was able to keep my blessing and I encourage readers to seek similar experiences with nature. Tom Fleischner attests that one key characteristic of a natural historian is a deliberate sense attentiveness to the world around us. Every sunset is a blessing and through focused observation we have the ability to experience them as such. Nature is riddled with moments like the one I had at Dorothy’s oasis. One simply must take time to allow them to unfold and revel in their splendor. Attentiveness and consideration for these blessings awaken our spiritual connection to the natural world, deepening our sense of selves, internally and as an element of the greater whole of nature.

Cory Horton: The Value Found in Field Course Experiences

11017066_1032123520133514_358484404277688186_nThe educational environment and expectations in our country have changed a lot in the past few decades. In today’s world, as kids near high school graduation they are expected to have a life plan. Most importantly this includes a plan for college. Five years ago, as I neared graduation, the rhetoric of my teachers, counselors and parents urged me to find a college I wanted to attend and a degree I wanted to study; which basically leads to a life plan. The issue is at 18, few kids know what they want for dinner, let alone what they want for their life. Because of this pressure, I picked a school, but I didn’t have much luck picking and sticking to a major.

It was not until last summer when I attended an 18 day Environmental Ethics course through the Wild Rockies Field Institute that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Through this course, I gained experiential knowledge of climate change and environmental issues which led to a passion in educating myself in environmental issues. Currently, I am on my second WRFI course, Cycle the Rockies. Over the past three weeks we have been studying the energy systems in Montana, the economic, social and environmental impacts of these systems, as well as the broader topic of climate change.

In past blogs, I have discussed the specific information I have learned in this course.  Now I would like to take time to reflect on the benefits of outdoor education through WRFI and field courses in general.

To me, one of the most rewarding qualities of WRFI has been the time spent in the great outdoors. Remember in grade school when the teacher would announce that class would be held outdoors? I’m not sure about you, but I felt those were the best days. With WRFI, every day is an outdoor class day, and it’s not in the school yard, but rather it is amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. I have had class in locations ranging from sandstone rocks perched on bluffs overlooking the endless grassy plains of the west, to natural mineral hot springs, to high mountain meadows on the continental divide. Tell me, with a straight face, that you would rather be in a clammy lecture room, packed with hundreds of students.

As engaging as the setting of WRFI classes is the class style and subject matter. Forget outdated (and expensive) textbooks and boring multi hour lectures. In the WRFI “classroom” the focus is on updated scientific journals and reliable, progressive reporting. Both of the courses I have attended have had an incredible collection of engaging and relatable material. As we traversed the high alpine we read of western pine beetles, endangered pika and receding glaciers. As we biked through wind farms we learned of energy policy, the viability of renewables and the economic impact of eliminating fossil fuels. I find there is no better time to learn about an issue than when it is right in front of you, begging for your inquiry.

All in all, field courses and WRFI in particular, provide students with an experience that the traditional college class cannot. They allow for hands on learning. They encourage real time discussion and debate. They surround you with an environment saturated in inquiry and information that goes beyond textbooks and lectures. Best of all, they do this while immersed in the great outdoors. For me, these classes have left a more lasting impression than all of my traditional college education combined. They have also allowed me to realize that climate change and environmental education are areas I want, and need, to spend the rest of my life perusing.

Traditional four year institutions may not be for everyone. But learning about what you love while immersed in real life situations brings about something, I feel, everyone can benefit from.

Austin Gilbert: Investing in the Future

11027999_1032123260133540_35664002567062249_nFor the last three weeks, some fellow students and I have been biking across the state of Montana while studying energy production and climate change as part of the Cycle the Rockies course. As we move into the climate change section of the course, we’ve been reading “The Burning Question,” by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. It addresses the daunting challenge of facing climate change, as well as what it might take to develop lasting, comprehensive solutions. Many options are explored while taking into account the potential downsides and feasibility of implementing them. One of these options, although it only addresses part of the greater problem of climate change, is a global carbon cap. According to Bill Mckibben, “167 countries responsible for 87% of the world’s carbon emissions” have agreed that efforts should be made to limit the average global temperature increase (since the late 1800s) to 2 degrees centigrade, as of 2012. We have already raised temperatures by almost one degree. In order to achieve this goal, emissions must be limited to 565 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide through 2050. So, logically, a cap on global carbon emissions should be set no higher than 565 gigatons. The challenge, then, is how to agree on and implement this global carbon cap.

While considering this option, the chief concern is how to allocate these 565 gigatons between each individual country. Wealthy and developed nations, such as the United States, refuse to commit to serious emissions reductions unless developing countries (China, Brazil, India, South Africa), who are collectively responsible for greater annual emissions than developed nations, are subject to the same rules and reductions. Meanwhile, developing nations are more dependent on the burning of fossil fuels to grow their economies. They argue that they shouldn’t have to reduce their emissions unless the developed world, which is almost entirely responsible for historical carbon emissions, proves that it is willing to make substantial reductions of its own.

A common approach to reduce carbon emissions is investment in clean, renewable energy sources. The problem with this in developed, and especially developing nations, is that it is more expensive (in the short-term) than continued reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. This stems from the fact that these countries have already paid for the infrastructure to burn coal – from mining to transportation to combustion. Resistance to renewables is often based on the up-front cost of installing the new technology. Even if it will be a cheaper option in the long run, existing infrastructure makes continued use of fossil fuels cheaper short-term.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic solution to eliminate the costs of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  However, we may be able to reduce or even prevent new dependencies on fossil fuels by investing in further development of renewable technologies. The price of renewables is already dropping. As developed nations, we have the capacity to further develop technologies, such as solar panels, so that they become more efficient and more economical. This way, as undeveloped nations begin to grow demand for energy in the future, solar energy will become the standard – not fossil fuels. By skipping the fossil fuel step, these countries will also skip the massive initial investment required to use coal or hydroelectric power. Furthermore, solar can be initiated on a much smaller scale, then additional panels can be installed as demand increases.

Admittedly, this is only a small part of the bigger picture. It does little to reduce current carbon emissions even if it prevents new sources from producing additional emissions. But the way I see it, we need to do everything we can to tackle climate change – it doesn’t matter how big or small the steps are. And as the costs of renewables continue to fall, maybe even fossil fuel-dependent nations – like the United States – will finally decide to make a large-scale transition to clean energy sources.