Field program teaches students to think differently about public lands

From the Jan. 28, 2013 High Country News special issue on natural resource education.

I am in school, watching a grown man cry.

He works at a clinic in the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border. He tells me and 22 other visiting college students what happened to local farmers one season, when the federal government shut off their irrigation water to protect endangered fish during a drought. He is counting divorces, cases of depression, heart attacks. He is counting suicides. “Fish are as important as people,” he says. “Fish are not more important than people.”

DCF 1.0I am in school, ankle-deep in dust fine as flour.

Nevada’s Crescent Valley palms up to blue mountains that close around it like fingers. “Do not enter” is painted in red across the closed door of a ramshackle structure without walls. On the ground: abandoned sleeping bags snagged in sage; two running shoes, a step apart; a broken telescope; sun-faded clothes.

A wind-battered sign rising against the sky proclaims “Newe Sogobia” –– land never ceded to the United States in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The Western Shoshone’s claim to millions of ancestral acres.

What is not here: the cattle belonging to the Native women who ranched this area in defiance of the feds — seized days before by the Bureau of Land Management. What is not here: the earth scraped from the nearby Cortez Gold Mine, leached of its riches with no payment to the tribe.

It’s the fall of 2002 and I am learning an unsettling version of the region where I grew up, on Whitman College’s first Semester in the West. The traveling field program, offered to students at the Walla Walla, Wash., school, explores public-lands issues in nearly every Western state. Over three months, we visit, eat and camp with people on opposite sides of fights over grazing and mining, species protection and energy. Often, I realize how little I know, discover that those I disagree with aren’t so different from me. Sometimes speakers fall through, or we offend them. Sometimes gear blows away and we find it high in trees, or not at all. More…