Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

August Schield: What is Home?

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At a recent class deep in the Big Snowy Mountains I was asked, “What does it mean to be home?”

This is a hard question for me to grasp. I could give you a specific answer stating that I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Yet as soon as I came to that quick conclusion, I was overcome with confusion: Was that really home? In a great sense, yes, because it is where I grew up and that place is deeply rooted in me. But I can no longer call it home. On this course, I have realized that everyone has their own unique background and upbringing. Through the process of identifying Self, one also identifies what it is to truly be home. Gary Snyder states in The Place, the Regions, and the Commons that all of us “carry a picture” of the environment we grew up in as the building blocks of a sense of place. He further states, “Our place is part of what we are. Yet a place has a kind of fluidity: – It passes through space and time,” and concludes by stating that home is literally based within a Bioregion as the “hearth,” or a home base at which one’s culture and community is centered. I couldn’t agree more except of one aspect: The Hearth of an individual is just as fluid as space and time, and for me, (being quite nomadic lately) it is important for me to affiliate home with my current culture to stay grounded.

Home, as Snyder states, originates with an image. One that is archetypal and forever translucent in my mind. It is the place where the idea of home originated within me, and later blossomed in this strong gravitational force of wanderlust that to this day continues to draw my mind west towards the vertigo of exposed peaks, the mysteriousness held only at the top of the tallest pine. Allow me to share this image with you: my memory originates in the great bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, on a rainy day of course. The thickness of the temperate rainforest is just a quick red rain boot sprint away from my back porch and I am eager to take cover under a tall juniper tree with my father. My frantic sprint comes to an almost immediate halt as I lock eyes with the branches high above towards the tip of a large Douglas fir. Its seems to look down at me as if it is curious about what it might be like to be as tall as a bushel of rustling ferns. In contrast, I wonder what the forest floor would look like from the thick bench-like branch high above, carpeted in a shag-like vibrant green moss. I hear my father call to me, so quickly I scurry to join him kneeling on the moist red earth beneath the juniper. He has on his face an ear to ear smile that seems to hold all the secrets to happiness; in his hand he uncovers a few juniper berries. “Is this a magical berry tree?” I squeak. He laughs as I sit down near the trunk with a low branch clasped in my hand, he watches me cautiously so I don’t actually eat any. We both came to this tree often, and almost always during a rainy day to sit in a nice dry place to take in the density of ferns and thick Douglas fir bark. I would imagine about how far this forest would stretch, and all the adventures I could would someday have, roaming from tree to tree, learning about the secrets they had to tell me. At the ambitious age of three years old, the tall juniper and surrounding temperate rain forest was home to me, but it is no more than a set of archetypal images to me, now acting as forceful sense of nomadism.

Place has become the most fluid aspect of home, where the feeling of home itself is when I feel welcomed and comfortable within a culture. One of six ways Jim Dodge describes a Bioregion, (something I affiliate “home” with) is “Cultural/phenomenological: you are what you think you are, your turf is what you think it is, individually and collectively.” This hearth is based in the culture embodied within the amazing town of Bozeman, MT. It has been a little over a month since I was last there, but when our WRFI caravan drove the great valley between the Bridger and Crazy Mountain ranges the other day, I could feel the presence of home, and could see its spirit blowing viciously atop the freshly snow caked peaks of the Bridger range. Excitement took over me as I began to explain to my instructor, Dave, about the greatness of the high peaks and the chutes I have skied with my friends. It would take a dense novel to explain all the amazing experiences I have shared with my culturally affiliated “homies” of Bozeman. However, like an archetypal memory, the cultural identity I have with Bozeman is translucent, light as thin air, I cannot physically touch it. Bozeman is my hearth. A place I have frequently left, but always felt its rich culture pull me back, like the flame flicking in a hearth, I am drawn to its warmth.

I will return soon, but for how long? With age I have come to realize that this hearth I share with all these wonderful people will one day become as fluid as space and time as Snyder states. It is inevitable, that I will one day migrate again, just as I have the same feeling for all my friends that I share this cultural connection with. This fluidity is Inevitable. I enjoy being nomadic; I have learned so much about myself and other cultures within the past five months. I identify home with culture, and for the past month, that sense of place has been grounded with my ever enlightening classmates and instructors of the Wild Rockies Field Institute. It is important to stay present in the culture you are currently affiliated with as to get the most out of the wonderful time and place we all share. I share my home with these people, our adventures, and all of our distracted, goofy antics. Home is where the hearth always burns.

August Schield: The Hypocritical Oath

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I am a hypocrite. I preach conservation of lands, understand the importance of biodiversity, believe in climate change, and spent my precious free time recreating in wilderness and national forest, observing and learning of the natural processes that dictate the ways things are. Yet I play the devil’s advocate because I promote and consume more than the necessary amount of wanted commodities influenced by my mother culture that in turn harm and diminish the world I aim to save. I am no longer, by definition, a wild animal. So I choose or more-so feel the need to have these synthetic objects in order to survive comfortably in these wild lands. I advocate for protection of watersheds so geese can migrate to safe healthy land, but own a $300 sleeping bag made of goose down. I am in the harshest of terms a hypocrite, continually operating on the hypocritical oath. This oath to me is advocating for the environment, against issues such as fracking and booming oil developments and in contrast consuming oil industry products such as skis, jackets, kayaks, cars, you name it. These realizations have been haunting to me as a young environmentalist, and at times make it difficult to find solutions to move forward. However, being receptive of the land and my culture, I am humbly yet shamefully able to ask and answer this question: what is your role in the dying world?

I am only human; consumerism is my way of life. I have realized that conscious thought is the first step to realizing and reducing my own footprint. I am against the 21st century’s oil and gas developments in delicate ecosystems, specifically in the Beartooth front, the ANWR region, and the Badger Two Medicine area; but I drive a truck, own a quiver of 3 pairs of skis, and a plethora of highly advanced synthetic outdoor garments (most of which I replace yearly due to wear and tear). In realizing this hypocrisy I shall move forward into conscious decision making. In such a diligent practice, I can dictate my cultural consumer wants and won’t end up with an abundance of things I do not need. If I continue down this destructive path based on my hypocritical oath, complaining about lack of snow pack, shorter summer ski seasons, and increased frequency in wildfires; then I am a hypocrite. So how do I move forward?

Conscious thought and decision-making are just a part of the process. Taking what I need and leaving what you want to consume does not, in my mind, complete what Thomas Fleishner describes as the “spiral offering,” a way to give back to the land that created your livelihood in the first place. How can I give back to a world that I have, until now, blissfully reaped? It is easy to want all the latest and greatest gear to be comfortable in the wild so that I can focus on my mind experiments and allow myself this wonderful and forever-growing environmentalist mindset in the first place. Now I must take action, learn as much about the natural world as I can and how I can aim to conserve it scientifically. Then I must communicate my knowledge and make noble decisions that set examples for others. No, I am not going to strip down naked and run into the wild to live with the lions and tigers and bears. However, to be a student of the land does not require lavish abundance of gear. I just need to get out there and explore, be receptive and humble as I have the last few days been wandering with an open heart and realize that all I have ever wanted is right in front of me. I am an environmentalist, and although my culture may never able me to break the hypocritical oath, I can practice my ethics to the land day in and day out. In doing this I hope I can inspire you to do the same.

Shane Randle: Environmentalism & Religion

14976471_1357390087606854_8557159165283576829_oIs environmentalism a form of religion? Environmentalists all share a view on what is important to us in the world: the animals, the land, and the natural processes that surround us. Environmentalism gives us a set of broad ethics that translate into a belief on how to treat the world around us: with respect.

In class we were talking about renewable energy and how solar and wind power are now accessible, cheap, efficient, and being integrated into our national (and global) grid. This discussion followed a tour around the Judith Gap Wind Farm, where we learned about how companies like Invenergy are building large-scale wind farms to accommodate our society’s energy needs and [hopefully] take the place of other types of energy production such as the use of coal. To many of us on the course, we have an ethical obligation to not only support that change, but to also be vocal advocates for that change.

As Derick Jensen wrote in his article “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change,” changing our personal habits (in terms of energy use or any other environmental issue) isn’t going to cut it. The amount of water you save by shortening your shower won’t truly help the water issue on a large scale. Instead, we need to work on social and political levels to effect the necessary broad-scale environmental change that we seek. He doesn’t tell us to forego personal changes, however. He simply tells us that those changes are not enough. We need to become activists.

As environmentalists, we generally agree that sharing our views and affecting change is for the benefit of everyone (and everything). We preach saving the earth in order to save humanity. Isn’t this very similar to the evangelizing prominent in many religions? This realization has opened my eyes and changed some of my views on evangelization: people coming to your door to preach religion or talk to you about important environmental measures are just doing what they believe is good and right. Both environmentalism and religion give people not only a moral way of thinking about the world, but also a moral way of acting within it.

These are simply guidelines. Through the lens of environmentalism, or religion, people are able to create their own personal sets of ethics by which to live their life. That’s exactly what we are doing out here. By traveling through the mountains, rivers, and towns of Montana, I’m able to take the general ethics I’ve been taught through environmentalism and make them my own. Then, taking into account my personal ethics, I can become a heartfelt advocate for what I truly believe in.  I can become someone I’ll be proud to be.

Megan Harrison: A Journey through the Prairie

img_1145The Great Plains for the last 10,000 years has remained an arid grassland receiving less than 24 inches of rain annually. This makes one wonder how can one of America’s longest river be located in such an dry environment. The Missouri river begins its journey in the headwaters in East Glacier N.P., continues through central Montana to North Dakota, and eventually joins the Mississippi in St. Louis, MO. The Missouri river valley is comprised of unimaginable Virgelle white sandstone cliffs, carved out coulees, and a surprisingly diverse plant community. Prior to the dams in the upper Missouri river, spring floods would help establish new river channels, transforming riparian vegetation for cottonwood seedlings. The seedlings would then be placed high on the river banks to avoid being torn out by winter ice. Over many years, the meandering water of the Missouri has laid down inches of sediment like pages in a novel. While kayaking down the Missouri, the geological features that remain redirects my focus and I become deeply observant of my surroundings.

The beginning of my own journey to the prairie began in mid-September. It had been my first kayak down a major river. It reminded me of a three lane highway: cottonwoods, grassland and sandstone cliffs. Early into the Missouri trip,  our group rested the boats on the muddy banks of Eagle Creek BLM campground. When we awoke the next morning, we hiked  from the south end of the campground heading east into Neat Coulee. As the trail enters the canyon, I am soon restricted by the sandstone walls. The sandstone is a yellow tan, but look closer and one will be able to see white Alkali present in horizontal layers. Within the wall that white Alkali has percolated downward by groundwater and precipitated out when it has reached a less permeable layer of shale. Dragging my fingers across these tan and white walls particles of sand fall from my touch. How old and fragile this landscape seems, weathering before my eyes.

Landforms on the upper Missouri are unlike anywhere I have seen in the state of Montana; a sense that I am unaccustomed to in the western Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains are a complex system of large and small rivers. I have come to learn the history water has left behind over the years.  I will remember my kayaking trip as a trip through time, and I will be curious to see how the future landscape will be affected by the Missouri’s hydraulic processes.

Ruth Howe: Water is the Lifeblood of the Earth

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Ruth Howe (far right) and fellow classmates on the Mighty Missouri

Humans are 50% water and all plants pull it from the ground – from crops to trees to the scraggliest patch of rock star moss.

We started our journey in the Scapegoat Wilderness. In the mountains water is plentiful and clean. It comes from snow-melt, and from ground wells which are replenished by snow. We purified our water with filters and dissolved chlorine tablets to protect against giardia, but I’m sure we were in some places we could drink it straight. The cool, clear water is the reason we could be in the Scapegoat. Besides being too rugged for settlement, a major reason the national forests were set aside was to protect the source of water for the Great Plains, because it is THE source of water. The Northern Great Plains get 9-14 inches of rain annually, which is nearly a desert.

As soon as we leave the mountains, where the mountains are still in view, people are fighting over the water. Landowners have water rights on a first-come, first-serve basis, and until recently when in-stream flow was added to ‘beneficial use’ they had to divert their allotment for agriculture, mining, or residential use. Some neighbors have serious conflicts over water.

So that takes us (from the rivers that make it) into the Missouri River. Specifically, the Wild and Scenic section between Coal Banks Landing and Kipp Landing where we camped at the same sites Lewis and Clarke camped at 200 years ago, and the view is relatively unchanged. We even met a group of “fur trappers” in a keel boat, wearing all leather, eating form wooden bowls and acting like the world stopped changing in 1820.

But a few things have changed. They’ve changed a few times, evidenced by the abandoned homesteads along the river. The most common “wildlife” is cattle, most hunters are whizzing up and down the river in motor boats, and most importantly the river is tamed by five upriver dams which divert what would be spring floods to crops of wheat, barley and alfalfa. So while the river looks the same, and we camped under beautiful shady stands of cottonwoods and watched bighorn sheep, the changes are there. Many stands of cottonwoods are older than the dams, and the pallid sturgeon haven’t been able to spawn in more than 40 years because never mind getting over the dams, there’s not enough weather for them to get to the dams. The river ecosystem evolved when the river flooded every year, and every 5-20 years there’d be a flood big enough to create new sand bars for the cottonwoods. Now the BLM drills eight foot deep holes and waters every week to get cottonwoods to grow, and scientists have been trying to breed sturgeon with little success.

So, as we leave the breaks, it’s easy to wonder what’s the best use of the water? Is it for bread, beer and beef, which we all consume, or should we restore the system of flood and droughts that the plants and animals adapted to? It’s not an easy question and it doesn’t have easy answers. What would people do without farming or ranching? What will happen when the last stands of cottonwoods on the Missouri breaks die? Could there be a compromise with man-made floods that sustains both? In the 30’s when they started building dams, they didn’t understand that the river needs to flood. Now, as people learn more about the life that a free-flowing river supplies, maybe it’s time for a new system.

Rachel Bowanko: Unexpected Discoveries

rachelWhen I was first instructed to find a plant that I did not know the name of, observe it for an hour, and then identify it, I assumed that the assignment was going to be the longest hour of my life. I walked around for a while in search of a plant, realizing that I knew the names of very few of them. I looked at the plants around me and decided to perch my chair in an equally shady and sunny location. I sat down with my snack, water bottle, and notebook and stared out at the vibrant tree standing before me.

I watched a chipmunk scurry around on the branches and watched the needles on the tree stretch upwards towards the sun. I noticed the bright red hue of the cones and smelled a welcoming pine fragrance as I crushed the needles between my fingers and palm. I grazed my fingers over the rough bark and traced them along the trunk to where the tree came into contact with the ground. Before I knew it, I had spent well over an hour with this tree and could easily recognize its bark, trunk, branches, needles, and cones. This tree became familiar to me, and I felt that I had known it for much longer. Suddenly a task that seemed to be so arduous was something I never wanted to stop doing.

With excitement, I went down to the plant guide to identify my tree. I found it immediately, matching the description up with my notes. I read about it and learned that it was an Engelmann spruce, a member of the Pine family. I read about its cones and needles and the animals and plants that rely on it. I began reading about the uses of this tree and found my connection with it to grow even deeper. The Engelmann spruce is the common Christmas tree- a holiday that is central to my family where endless traditions and games make the season one of my most cherished times of the year. This tree is also used to make violins, an instrument that I grew up playing- an instrument that helped instill a love for music in me and helped to shape the path that my life would take. Perhaps even most relevant to my current passions and educational path, the bark of the Engelmann Spruce is used to make canoes. Ever since I was young, my earliest memories of the outdoors have centered about canoe trips full of wildlife sightings and watching the changing of the seasons around me. Canoeing helped foster the love I have for being outside today as well as my passion of conserving our planet. It has led me on several new adventures throughout my life and will lead me on countless more adventures to come.

Since that warm afternoon where I sat down with my tree, I have thought daily about all the lessons it taught me. Watching the tree provide shade for smaller plants, and shelter for animals such as the chipmunk, taught me about the importance of living at peace in a mutually beneficial relationship with your surroundings. Sitting above the vast and deep root system, this tree showed me the importance of being grounded. While only one species, this tree is connected so intricately with the environment around it forming a larger system. This larger system included both the living and non-living aspects of the environment and all the relationships encompassed within these. This bigger system was comprised over many relationships, only some of which included humans.

Even more striking than these lessons was how connected I was to a single species, and in turn to an entire ecosystem. Without this assignment, I may never have discovered its fundamental importance in my life and the life of thousands of other people.

While studying human land relations we read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” and a piece by Noss entitled, “Biodiversity and Its Value.” In Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” I was particularly drawn to the “community concept.” In this section, Leopold explains that as a member of a community we are drawn to both compete but also cooperate with others. He goes on to expand what is typically defined as a community to include soil, water, plants, animals, and the land. As part of a community with all the biotic and abiotic factors included, we as humans shift from a role as a “conqueror or the land” to a citizen of it where there is mutual respect and love between all organisms and the land on which we thrive and survive.

In Noss’ discussion on biodiversity, I was most captivated by the concept of the intrinsic values that nature has – values beyond the ones that are obvious to humans (such as food and fuel). Noss defines intrinsic values as “the spiritual and ethical appreciation of nature for its own sake” (Noss, 22). Both authors wrote about the innate value found in nature and the importance of all organisms. As I spent time with my Engelmann Spruce and the species surrounding it I fostered a deep level of respect in myself for not only this marvelous tree but all other living organisms. I was not only able to see the value of the tree through its connection to me and its connection with the other living organisms surrounding it, but I also was able to see its innate value and the necessary role it plays in the ecosystem.

If one species of tree could have such a profound impact on my life, who knows how many other species I could be just as connected to. If spending some time by one tree can grow my respect for nature and an urge for preservation so much, imagine where we would be as a society if people watched the land, spent time in nature, learned from the land, and learned to experience the land on new levels based out of respect and love. When our value of nature extends beyond human use, but instead is anchored on the intrinsic value of nature we will be able to live in harmony with the environment, protecting it and allowing it to flourish.

As I watched my tree stretch out towards the warm afternoon sun, I felt a desire to protect my tree. I wanted to wrap my arms around its gray trunk and never let go. However, I quickly came to the realization that in order to protect my Engelmann Spruce, I would need to protect the plants living below it. I would need to protect the fungus that provides nutrients to the soil that houses the roots of my tree. The soil giving it life and all the plants keeping the soil from eroding deserve respect and protection. The animals amongst the branches that helped to spread the seed of this tree need to be protected. This is where the concept of community that Leopold spoke about really hit home to me- to protect this tree I need to protect its surroundings. To live in a community with this tree I need to recognize its value beyond the one it provides humans (such as its use in violins and canoes). Living with the land in one community can be found where the value of human use and ecological use is equally appreciated and respected. Living with the land in ways that protect the resources for both human and ecological use; a way of living with the entire system.