Rosie Smith: A Sense of Place

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Perched on a cliff, overlooking the Missouri River and surrounding plains, I was confronted by the expansiveness of this place. The vast open space was overwhelming and made me feel small, much like the towering North Woods and Great Lakes do back home in Wisconsin. From up there, at the top of Hole-in-the-Wall, I felt humbled, catching a glimpse of myself as being inseparable from my surroundings, embedded in the landscape. This connection, this sense of place, has been an overarching theme and topic of discussion during my time here in Montana.

For the past month and a half I have been traveling through the state, afoot and afloat, on an academic and expeditionary course, with a group from the Wild Rockies Field Institute. When the course comes to an end in just a few short weeks, we will each be tasked with formulating a personal land ethic. So far, through readings, class discussions, time in the field, and meetings with Montana locals and Native tribes, I have become increasingly familiar with the landscape, and have been exposed to many different opinions regarding our human place in and with the natural, nonhuman world. Most striking to me has been the idea that in our modern culture, connecting with nature is a choice.

Dominant Western culture views us, humans, as separate from nature. The nonhuman world, above all else, is seen as a resource, something from which we seek value. Nature is approached with an attitude of domination rather than cooperation. We establish boundaries by designating certain areas as economically valuable, to be used for resource extraction and tourism, others as socially valuable, to be used for recreation and solitude, and others as waste, to become, among other things, landfills. On the whole, nature is valued in terms of what can be gained from it not for being just what it is. By fragmenting bioregions and assigning specific uses to different areas we further divide ourselves from the natural world, making our inherent connection increasingly indecipherable.

In an article we discussed in class, The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character, Wendell Berry explains that in the past few hundred years, individuals have become less and less directly dependent on the natural world for survival; cultural connection to nature has diminished in correlation with the specialization of jobs and roles in society.  Berry identifies that loss of connection as a, “crisis of character.” Because individuals no longer have to understand their surroundings in order to meet their basic needs, establishing and maintaining any sort of relationship to nature has become a choice, and unfortunately, not a popular one. There was, however, a time when humans lived with the land rather than off of the land. One Native Blackfeet, Power Buffalo, who spoke to our group back in September, shared it was the belief of his elders that, “We (humans) are part of the land, and the land is part of us.” However out of favor in our modern culture, that view of human and land connection has not been lost entirely. Many recognize that, as author Karen Warren concisely stated in a piece on ecofeminism, “difference does not breed domination”; we are different than nonhuman nature, but those differences do not make us better, and certainly should not allow us to feel dominant.

From what I’ve gathered, seeking out a relationship with the nonhuman world is important because it allows individuals to not only feel connected to nature, but to feel increasingly connected to each other;  it fosters attentiveness and curiosity, which, in time, results in understanding and an ensuing love and reverence for the natural world around us. My experiences here in Montana have allowed me to explore and expand my connection to the nonhuman world. From the top of Hole in the Wall, from the peak of a mountain pass, from the center of an expansive prairie, or from a tiny campsite under the big starry sky, it’s impossible, at least for me, to feel greater than this place.

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Ariana Matthews-Salzman: A Matter of Perspective

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“Land is many things to many people,” writes Richard Manning in his book, Rewilding the West. What land means to one individual is a matter of perspective. It is very hard to find a single person in the world with the exact same perspective as you about much of anything – including the meaning and value of land.

I believe that a person’s perspective of land is influenced by many things: their childhood, upbringing, family, role models, peers, education, and travel. The meaning of a specific plot of land, the earth in general, or just spectacular tourist attractions will vary for everyone. Each new life experience a person has could somehow, if only in a minor way, affect how they value land.

So this means that different people with different upbringings, life experiences, feelings, concerns, and emotions will have very different perspectives of the land. The struggle is, how does a person step out of their own perspective to at least recognize, if not agree with, another’s perspective?

I think there will always be conflict over land, but awareness of this idea of perspective may bring cooperation between people with different perspectives of what land means to them. My thoughts on how and why perspective influences what land means to a person and how land is used have resonated clear and strong on our WRFI

course as we have listened to a number of people speak to us about their passion for the Montana landscape. Each speaker spoke clearly of their personal perspective on the land that they work, manage, and/or simply just love.

Lou Bruno, a member of the Glacier-Two-Medicine-Alliance (a local grass-roots preservation alliance), was very passionate about what land means to him. Land (wilderness in his case) is his “safe-haven” from the brutalities of the world – from the pain (from other humans) in his past. He was clear that he will do everything in his power to radically preserve as much wilderness as possible. When he shared his life history, his childhood, his upbringing – it was clear that his radical passion to preserve wilderness stems from the fact that, in a sense, the land had preserved him. It seems Lou’s perspective on the land comes from a space of struggle and gratitude, deeply rooted in his life experiences.

We also met with Sheldon – The Blackfoot Buffalo herd manager. Sheldon’s relationship with the land seemed much more lighthearted than Lou’s. His perspective was not as clearly shaped by personal pain, but was informed by his culture. In Blackfoot culture the land is sacred – it is their belief that humans live with the land, not off of it. Sheldon expressed that he and his family still live with many of the traditional views of land that his ancestors did. But he also lives in the modern world and manages the Buffalo herd for his tribe living in today’s culture. Sheldon seemed to have the perspective of a 21st century Blackfoot: balancing and valuing his traditional culture with current needs and the realities of the land.

And lastly, we visited the Lane Yeager, a lifelong worker of the land that had supported his family for generations. The Yeager Ranch was located on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Lane definitely conveyed his love of the beautiful land, the ranching lifestyle and his beautiful home state. He seemed to be as proud of the Montana land as the two other speakers I described above. However, Lane’s perspective of the land is much more informed by economics. He told us, “It’s all about turning grass into cash,” just ten minutes into our meander through his grazing land. At first I was taken aback by his blunt statement, but after listening to Lane talk more in depth about his life and his ranching practices, after hearing to him talk about maintaining his family’s ranching legacy, I gained insight into where his perspective came from. The land is foremost his livelihood – how he supports his family – but it is also a beautiful place with wild landscapes.

Differences in perspective are often the origin of land conflicts. Is it possible to broaden our lens and truly understand a competing vision of the land? I think we can! It starts with a personal challenge to internalize the concept of perspective. And maybe, even if this understanding doesn’t immediately change interactions on a political or economic level, it will at least teach you how to be a good neighbor.

Danielle Norris: Grass Growers

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Montana Afoot and Afloat students meet with Sheldon Carlson, Blackfeet buffalo manager.

     A lot goes into our perception of the West, and a conversation with two Montana grass growers can help clarify what actually shapes the landscape. Our WRFI group was lucky enough to speak with both a bison herd manager on the Blackfeet Reservation and a conventional cattle rancher near the town of Choteau, both along the Rocky Mountain Front. Sheldon, the Blackfeet Buffalo Herd manager and Lane Yeager, the rancher, have similar sounding job descriptions but do things very differently for very different reasons.

     Sheldon, as manager of the Inter-Tribal Bison Herd oversees the population of 515 animals and growing. He spends most of his energy maintaining water sources and fencing on the property. He also makes sure the bison are keeping a healthy weight by feeding them hay when they’re looking slim. With an abundance of help, he moves the entire herd from winter to summer pasture over the course of several days at the change of seasons. When other bison herds around the state have a surplus of animals, Sheldon can add to the Blackfeet’s herd. Unlike many ranching operations, the bison aren’t given shots or vaccines, or protected from predators like wolves. The two-year-olds are harvested for multiple purposes, including consumption and spiritual use. The meat is given to families or individuals in need on a regular basis and in special circumstances, like the recent fires affecting the town of Fort Butte. Because of the spiritual significance of the bison to the Blackfeet, hides are gifted to Tribal Council members, cut for the Sundance Ceremony. Hooves are used in a mating dance. The tongue is used in ceremonies. The bison also provide a source of income to the tribe through meat sold to restaurants in California and hides sales. As a member of the Blackfeet Nation, Sheldon’s heritage influences how he sees bison in the landscape and as an inherent part of his tribal life.

     Heritage is also a big reason why Lane Yeager continues to raise calves on his family’s seventh generation ranch. His main task is “turning grass into cash.” He similarly maintains fencing, facilitates calving, and controls weeds on his property. Calves born in the spring are weaned and shipped to feedlots in the Midwest around October of the same year. They’re given vaccines and growth hormones during their life on the ranch and feed mostly on native grass pasture. Some land is utilized as irrigated hay fields and sold to other farms. One of Lane’s greatest challenges as a rancher is dealing with wildlife damage to fences and pasture, a legitimate problem for a property surrounded by land managed for wildlife.

     What can we learn from comparing these two grass growers? How can we understand the similarities and differences among individuals making a living on and from the land? Both Lane and Sheldon are raising controversial species in a controversial landscape. Buffalo, despite being a native species to the Montana prairie, are legally considered a livestock species and not managed in the wild by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lane argues that cattle have replaced bison in the ecosystem here, and many ranchers fear the potential of bison destroying fences. Others argue they are a critical part of this place and should be reintroduced in the wild. Cattle, on the other hand, receive criticism for overgrazing. Despite the land use issues relating to the two species, Lane and Sheldon are motivated by their love for this landscape, the one they work and live on. Listening to and connecting with people and their stories should inform our perception of what is seen as right or wrong when developing a land ethic because people, like Lane and Sheldon, are an important and fundamental part of the land.

    How can we capitalize on the common goals of such individuals to conserve the Rocky Mountain Front?

Sam Kinney: How to love

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Sam Kinney floating the Mighty Missouri River

What is a land ethic and what does having a land ethic mean? To quote the famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” This quote highlights the disjointed relationship between humans and the land. We have no ethical value system that addresses our relationship to nature. We view the environment as property, a resource that exists solely for human use and economic gain, “entailing privileges but not obligations.” This stands in stark contrast to our ethical and moral views that deal with human to human relationships. The question then becomes: Can we extend our moral community to include all parts of the environment, and if so what would that society look like?

One culture that we have been introduced to on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course that has a very different way of interacting with the land is the Blackfeet Tribe. They place intrinsic value on the land and they see themselves as interconnected with their environment, as opposed to our views of the land as property and ourselves as conquerors of the land. One difference between the two cultures that I noticed was that the Blackfeet have a deep spiritual connection to their place and they care very deeply about every aspect of the landscape. In contrast, our society is lacking a deep connection to and knowledge of place, and in turn, we have little to no respect or care for our environment. Could it be that having a spiritual connection to the natural world could be one way of expanding and extending our ethics to the environment?

On this trip we have been having many powerful experiences that have helped us to build a deeper connection to this place and the world around us. It is hard not to feel connected to the landscape when you are deep in the Scapegoat Wilderness literally being blown up and over mountain passes, standing atop them, wind flying through your hair, overlooking the junction of where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The wind breathes life into us. Or when we sat and floated in blissful peace through the evening light to finish our Missouri River kayak trip under the vast array of the nighttime stars. I think we all felt our connection deepen as we scrambled up pillars to Hole-in-the-Wall, high above the mighty Missouri.  There we sat, quietly overlooking the landscape and pondering the Earth’s beauty and how we fit in to this greater picture. Or when we woke up to the first snow of the season (in September!) and were greeted by the sight of the massive limestone reef of Half Moon Park highlighted by the soft glimmer of the snow. I realize now that all of these experiences have influenced and affected my relationship with the environment and my connection to this place. We are experiencing the natural history of these places, their beauty and power, both internally and externally. After having experiences like this it is hard not to feel a change in ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.

All of this is well and good but why does building a deeper connection to nature even matter? I think the author Stephen Jay Gould summed up the value of connection to the environment best in his article, Enchanted Evening. He says, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” We must save these species and environments, not just for their sake, but for ours as well. For don’t we all rely on clean air to breathe and clean water to drink? There are countless rational reasons that we should change our relationship with the environment and establish a land ethic. As Joe McKay (Power Buffalo), a tribal council leader of the Blackfeet Tribe so wisely said, “We need to learn to live with the land rather than off the land.”

Awesome Alumni: Erica Schwabach, Restoration Ecology 2014

Erica Schwabach is a SUNY – ESF graduate as well as a alum of the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Restoration Ecology course. Here, she tells why three weeks in Montana changed her undergraduate education… for the best!

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What was the most memorable adventurous moment on your trip?

The whole thing!! Haha.. no, there are certainly moments that stick out in particular. Even though it was possibly the coldest moment of my trip, I know I will always remember the trip into the Snowcrest Mountains at the beginning of my course. About 2-3 days the weather began to turn and it started snowing as we climbed in elevation. Not having the proper clothing really set me back but my fellow classmates showed me nothing but love and care as they gave me their extra layers and hugs. Pat, our instructor, even built a fire in the snow! It was a moment I will never forget. It challenged me and taught me my strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the trip I was very fortunate to have made it back down the mountain, but I was so grateful to have been given the chance to even see such a beautiful place and come back to NY to tell of it.

What was the most memorable connection (with a fellow student, instructor, or guest speaker, etc) that you made on course?

This one is a tough one. I really connected to a lot of different students and both of my instructors. So I don’t think I’ll choose just one. One of my strongest connections was to my tent mate, Ilona. We were a very efficient team and got along great… neither of us snored! It was very bonding to spend 3 weeks camping and working and learning together. I’d say besides Ilona, I was closest to another student named Amelia on my trip. She was so sweet and friendly and a bright, pleasant person to be around. Our friendship grew as the trip went on and even though she lives across the country (she goes to school at UofM and is from Oregon) we still keep in touch via Facebook all the time! I hope to be able to visit her again someday. I also connected strongly to my instructors Pat and Molly. They were incredibly intelligent and kind individuals and it was a pleasure learning from/with them. I have kept in touch with both of them. I also have kept in touch with a student named Stephen from the Summer Semester WRFI summer-long course. We had so much in common and it was awesome being able to meet, work/learn, and hang out along with the Summer Semester group that summer. I made a strong connection with Stephen and am happy that we still are able to keep in touch via social media and phone calls every so often. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful connections that I made that summer!

 What summer jobs, internships or other opportunities have you had since your WRFI course?

 Since I was close to graduating, I only had a semester or so left at SUNY-ESF, my home institution, after completing my WRFI course. I was most inspired by the fisheries components of the Restoration Ecology course. So in Fall of 2014 I worked in the SUNY-ESF fisheries research lab studying maturity indices of the American Eel with a graduate student. I took the Summer of 2015 to finish up a couple of courses, Field Ornithology and Wetland Restoration Techniques and I am now currently post-graduation. I am actively pursuing opportunities in environmental jobs in New York State at this time.

 How did experiential education differ from a traditional campus learning?

 I discovered that I learn the best out in the field after taking a WRFI course. Being totally immersed in the field/place, learning totally hands on, and being immersed in nature it is an incredible learning experience that no classroom can quite teach you. You learn things about the world, about others, and about yourself most of all. It was great being able to leave campus to learn!!

 What were you most nervous for before your WRFI course?

 I was most nervous for being so far away from home (I’m from NYS while my WRFI course was in Montana), in a different place/climate, with others whom I hadn’t met before, and perhaps not being as physically or mentally fit as everyone else. It turned out that it was an incredible experience of growth for me as an individual and once I was immersed in the course I felt totally at ease! Everyone was incredibly nice and supportive.

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Any advice for a student at your home university who is considering taking a WRFI course?

Be prepared! Bring a few extra layers of warm clothing.. make sure that you begin working out a few months before your WRFI course. But most importantly.. have fun! It’s an incredible opportunity that only brings more and more good things to come and great connections. And I’m so happy that I did it!

Thanks Erica, for being in touch!

Lindsay Ashton: Road Watch in the Pass

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Starry night skies, the satisfaction of settling into a cozy sleeping bag after a long day of hiking, the soothing sound of a nearby stream; these are a few of the things that make sleeping outside so enjoyable. After two months of sleeping in the backcountry and quiet camp sites, I have grown accustomed to falling asleep to the sound of running water. Following a six day backpack in Waterton Lakes Nation Park, my WRFI group had the privilege of staying with our guest speakers, Rob and Loretta Schaufele. Access to indoor plumbing, a delicious meal, and s’mores around a bonfire made camping in their backyard a special treat. Their outstanding generosity and hospitality reinforced the stereotype that “all Canadians are really nice.”

However, rather than the sound of a trickling creek, the background noise throughout the evening was the rush of traffic on Highway 3, a busy road just behind the Schaufele’s home in Western Alberta. While this couple has become accustomed to the din of cars and RVs zooming by, I was surprised by the noise. Yet this highway creates more than just an annoying sound—it acts as a death zone to crossing wildlife and a major source of habitat fragmentation in the region.

After over a decade of living along Highway 3, the Schaufeles may not mind the noise, but they do dislike seeing the frequent and bloody roadkill along the highway. Most people, including myself, often see dead deer and other wildlife along roads, briefly mourn the “poor animal” and zoom past without a second thought. The Schaufeles, on the other hand, look at road kill as a source of inspiration and take the time in their busy lives to address this issue. Rob is the director of “Roadwatch in the Pass”, a ground-breaking program created by the Miistakas Institute (of the University of Calgary) to collect roadkill data along the Crowsnest Pass region of Highway 3. Their aim is to gain more knowledge about how many animals die each year due to vehicle collisions and record observations of wildlife movement.

Over the past several years, the program has been collecting data through citizen science. Citizen science implements local knowledge and allows research to be augmented by the participation and insight of everyday people. While this may not be an effective method for all types of research, it has worked well for the Roadwatch program. Part of the program involves a set of volunteers that hike along the highway in search of roadkill that escaped the roadsides. We got to experience this as Rob and Loretta took us on a walk through fields of grass and mud near the highway in search of bones and bodies. While it may sound morbid, the work is fascinating. During the walk, Rob proudly pulled out his smartphone to show us the program’s new app, which allows volunteers to record the duration of their hike, identify where they find signs of roadkill using GPS coordinates, and to submit a picture of the find. All this information is sent to a database that synthesizes it. A plethora of useful data has been collected. Now, that information is being used to determine the best place to construct underpasses or overpasses that would help animals cross the road safely. Though it takes time for animals to learn to use these bridges, they have been successful in protecting both animals and people from collisions. These structures have been effective in nearby areas, such as Banff National Park, where we drove on top of underpasses in route to another backpacking trip.

The Crowsnest area, Banff, and other regions of Alberta make up a small part of the much larger Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion. Connectivity is an essential part of efforts to conserve this area, and roads act as a major source of fragmentation. Not only are roads a direct source of wildlife fatality, fragmentation also causes in-breeeding depression, local extinction, and many other problems. It’s easy to get discouraged when faced with the challenge of conserving such a large and complex area, but the Schaufele’s efforts in their community and other local initiatives give me hope. As Barry Lopez writes, these people are “local geniuses” and their “intimate” knowledge of the land “rings with the concrete details of experience.” Success, I’ve learned, comes from the combined efforts of people who truly care about their homes.

Carly Melchers: A Dam(n) Story – Part II

“One should admit at the outset to a certain bias. Indeed I am a “butterfly chaser, googly eyed bleeding heart and wild conservative.” I take a dim view on dam: I find it hard to learn to love cement, I am poorly impressed by concrete aggregates and statistics in cubic tons.”     -Edward Abbey

glen canyon damTwelve miles down stream from the Glen Canyon Dam I stand witness to turquoise rapids lapping against the banks of the Colorado River. Something seems amiss- what happened to the chocolate milk flow?

After a month of exploration in the Colorado Plateau I have learned a few things about this region- large bodies of water should pulse with sediment, Fremont’s Cottonwood whispers health, there is always more to uncover.

In the 1940s, the Echo Park Dam proposal caught the nation by surprise. People across the country rushed together to prevent said construction from occurring within the boundaries of the Dinosaur National Monument. The threat to the image of the National Park Service permitted a hasty compromise. Thomas Fliseshner would describe the negotiation governed by a “passion for a concept rather than a place.” Many were unaware the heart of Canyon Country would soon be covered by 100s of feet of halted water.

What was to be obscured?

Looking across the now filled canyon, a certain level of imagination is called forth. No longer can we scale the slick rock walls, following hand- and foot-holds to Ancestral Puebloan ruins. No longer can we walk the passages Homo sapiens called home for the past nine thousand years. Although archaeologists scoured the area prior to the dam’s construction, I sit with the realization no amount of documentation, be it photographs or museum specimens, can replace what has been lost.

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A Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana) scurries across railing, sandstone body a stark contrast to concrete. They pause for a moment; possibly pondering the fatal 710’ drop to river bottom. We both find ourselves on the second largest arch-gravity dam in the world.

My intention is to participate in the tour of Glen Canyon Dam as a naturalist, to discover life and see the dam as a habitat. Certainly there is a touch of irony in this approach and yet I am surprised by the similarities of concrete and sandstone walls. Both are porous; an estimated 1600 gallons seep through the dam per minute. Channeled, the water collects at the down-facing base. Here, two Mallards are found bobbing in the wake as it flows into the Colorado River. As for vegetation, none is present aside from the Bermuda grass at the dams’ foot. On adjacent canyon walls, however, moss and Maidenhair Ferns congregate around groundwater sapping cracks. Below, double-crested cormorants perch on round river rocks, seemingly attracted to the non-native trout drawn to the released cold water.

As with many dams in the twenty-first century, the Glen Canyon Dam is filled with controversy. Initially I foresaw a tour of the dam as being an emotionally charged experience. In actuality what I observed north and south of the wall is far more stirring.

Behind the wall, Powell Reservoir stretches 187 miles when full. This massive body of water, with more shoreline than the east coast of the U.S., is insensible. Now, far more barren than native desert, fluctuating water levels have created ephemeral shorelines inhospitable to plant life. Beavers, once common, along with many other critters, are no longer present, lost in the wake of progress.

If the reservoir were to drain before me, a lot of one thing would remain- silt. Of all the particles carried down the many tributaries of the Colorado River, I find myself at the most southern extent of their journey.

My movement, however, is not prohibited like the silt, enabling me to venture south. Because sediment is deposited at the reservoirs floor, only clear water is released. Rufus sandstone against teal flow, though beautiful, reminds of what is absent.

The dam has altered the function of the Colorado River and thus adjacent riparian communities. Without flash floods and alluvium deposits, sandbars have eroded without being replaced. As a result native flora and fauna have declined, specifically by the replacement of Fremont’s Cottonwood with invasive Tamarisk, a plant notorious for drinking copious amounts of water.

Much more could be said. Calcium carbonate deposits on Glen Canyon walls tell a story of dwindling water levels. Silt accumulates more each year. In 1996, the Bureau of Reclamation attributed the loss of 600,000 acre feet of water loss to evaporation, enough to meet the annual domestic needs of two million people. Much more should be said.

Dams are symbolic. They represent humanities ability to suppress, control and domesticate the wild animal within each of us. As I reflect on their nature, I wonder about the color of my own flow, if anything is holding me back from fulfilling my role.

I invite you to do the same.