Kimberly Rivers: An Old Question with a New Answer

kimberly-riversEvery summer of my life has been spent in my home state – North Carolina – and that has been very comfortable. Easy trips to the beach and long days spent by the pool. This past year, though, something changed. For the first time in my life, I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. It was my last summer before graduating from college, and I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit. By sheer luck, I found out about Wild Rockies Field Institute from a flier all the way across the country from Montana, in a classroom building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fast forward through the application, the invitation to join, and my decision to take the Environmental Ethics course – that’s when I first asked myself my big question of the summer: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Before taking the WRFI course, I had never been to Montana, never backpacked, and had never even been outside of North Carolina for longer than a week or so. After learning more about the intensity of the course and all the equipment we would need, I wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” When literally everyone I told about the course warned me to watch out for bears, I asked it yet again. I had no experience and really didn’t know what to expect. The closer it got to the start of the course, the more nervous I became. I packed my new, huge backpack before I flew out to Montana, and after struggling to lift it up and put it on, I asked the question yet again.

For our first day on the trail, my new WRFI friends and I were only hiking about 3 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to our first campsite in the backcountry. It became clear very quickly, however, that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our instructors estimated that our packs weighed about 45 pounds each, (which is heavy, y’all!!), and of course we got rained on. I just knew that I had made a mistake, and that I was going to be miserable for the three weeks of the course.

I started off the trip doubting myself and the course itinerary, but let’s fast forward one more time – I made it through the trip, and ended up having an incredible time. Together, my classmates and I backpacked in two different wilderness areas and Glacier National Park, spoke with members of the Blackfeet Tribe, swam through a canyon to a secret waterfall, scrambled up to a mountain peak, and engaged in meaningful conversations about climate change and life itself, among other really cool things. I learned so much about myself and could feel proud for what I had accomplished. My whole perspective about traveling and the world changed – I knew I loved traveling and wanted to do more of it before I came on the course, but new ideas about what I could do were exploding in my head. I again began asking myself the same question: “What have I gotten myself into?”, but now it had begun taking on a new meaning.

Before the course, my question had been one of doubt and fear. Now, it’s a door to new opportunities and possibilities. By taking the WRFI Environmental Ethics course, I have gotten myself into a new mindset, and a new perspective. I cannot thank my instructors Pat and Katie, as well as the rest of the WRFI crew, enough for everything they did for me to ensure that an inexperienced girl from North Carolina had the best experience possible through their amazing program. If you’re thinking about taking a WRFI course, I urge you to find out what you can get yourself into. I’m so glad I did.



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.

Issue Update: Montanans Testify about Coal Train Impacts

Students from Cycle the Rockies will remember Ressa Charter, the latest of the great conservation activists from the Charter family, who host us on their ranch north of Billings. Ressa traveled to Spokane to testify about proposals for greatly increased coal mining and shipping mean to the real people and real landscapes in Montana. The public comment sessions did not include Montana, so Ressa and many others went to Spokane to speak up.

From the Missoula Independent:

Montanans bus 1,000 miles for voice in coal-export debate

POSTED BY  ON TUE, DEC 11, 2012 AT 11:48 AM

By early afternoon on Dec. 4, the bus that left Billings at 4 a.m. had reached Idaho. The 60 people on board, some of whom climbed aboard in Billings, others in Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, are all eager to arrive in Spokane, Wash., where federal and state agencies are holding a hearing on a proposed coal-export terminal on Washington’s coast, near Bellingham.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers apparently figured the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would be of little significance to Montana, so it didn’t schedule an Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearing anywhere in the state. But these passengers—Montana ranchers, school teachers, members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and college-aged activists among them, all wearing matching red “Power Past Coal Montana” T-shirts—are traveling as many as 550 miles over eight hours, each way, to tell the agency otherwise. In short, they want the scope of the coal-export terminal study to include impacts back to the mines in Montana and Wyoming that would supply the coal, such as the proposed Otter Creek mine in southeastern Montana.


With the group still more than an hour from Spokane, Natalie Snyders, a staffer with the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, the non-profit that chartered the bus, rises to rouse the road-weary passengers. “The coal doesn’t just start at the Idaho border, it doesn’t just appear there,” she says, standing at the front of the bus with a microphone. “It comes from Montana, right? It comes from the Powder River Basin and [the coal trains are] going to come through Montana, and we’re going to be impacted. Billings is going to be impacted just as much as Spokane is.”

One of the passengers is Ressa Charter, a 31-year-old in a cowboy hat whose family ranches in the Bull Mountains, where they’ve fought coal development for decades. “So I’m bred for all of this,” he says. He calls the coal-export proposition “an obvious boondoggle.” But with the backing of some of the world’s largest coal companies and BNSF Railway, and the lure of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to the state, there’s real potential to move huge amounts of Montana coal across the Pacific Ocean; a relatively small amount is already shipped to Asia.

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Issue Update: Colleges and Universities De-Funding Fossil Fuel Industries

This encouraging word comes from the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. AASHE is a great organization to keep tabs on for study, work, and issue advocacy opportunities. (You can sign up for email updates on their website.)

Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns on the Rise

Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are active at about 50 U.S. campuses , and many more are expected to launch in coming weeks. Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees at Unity College voted to divest their endowment from fossil fuel industries. And last year Hampshire College (MA) passed a sustainable investment policy that effectively divested endowment funds from fossil fuels. More recently, the Harvard College Undergraduate Council announced 72 percent of voting students want Harvard University to divest its $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels. The divestment movement has increasingly received national exposure due in part to Bill McKibben’s 21-city Do the Math tour. A recent Boston Globe op-ed by McKibben and Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, calls on colleges to make no new investments in fossil fuels, “wind down” current investments in five years, and invest in increasing their own energy efficiency for a greater return.

See alsoStudents Call for Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry
See alsoColleges Divest from Fossil Fuels
See alsoDo the Math: Invest While We Divest

Issue Update: Senator Tester and the Hunters

Interesting natural resource politics in one of the crucial senate races in the West. Check out the comments below for a very lively interaction between the author and several activist readers.

Sportsmen sealed reelection for Sen. Jon Tester

Other notes: Sen. Tester is an organic farmer from Big Sandy, and was a speaker on our Montana Afoot and Afloat course for several years (he’s a bit too busy these days). Author Ben Long has spoken to our Cycle the Rockies course. Comment-er Matt Koehler is with Missoula’s WildWest Institute, Kieran Suckling is Director if the Center for Biological Diversity, a very litigious (and effective) conservation group from Arizona.