Meet our Guests: Cristina Perea

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Cristina Perea

Urban Projects Department Assistant, Sonoran Institute

Mexicali, Baja California


“El restoración no pelea con las necesidades economicas,” explains Cristina Perea, a 31-year old with feisty energy, contagious laughter, and a keen eye: restoration and economic needs don’t fight with each other, they can go hand in hand. Cristina studied International Relations in undergrad, and mastered in Planning and Sustainable Development, both from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California at the Mexicali headquarters. As part of the Delta team for the Sonoran Institute, Cristina has worked as the Urban Projects Department assistant for two years. It’s clear that this woman is excited about working with other humans. Strolling along the Rio Hardy with misty peaks in view above the flat desert, Cristina spoke about two land owners working with the Sonoran Institute to restore the riverside for a future camping and cabin spot. One land owner is a fisherman, the other a government official, and both realize the economic possibilities that come with supporting the Rio Hardy native ecology.

Cristina shared the lesson learned when cottonwoods and willows were planted—they died due to a lack of water. Since, with the help of volunteers, Sonoran Institute has introduced mesquite along the bank. One day last July, 900 trees were planted, and we were asked to imagine the density of the shore in just a few years.

Cristina told us that this project is major because since its fruition, other land owners have been asking the Sonoran Institute to start restoration work on their land as well. While land owners, like the two involved in this project, are able to take hold of an opportunity for economic development, the Institute is able to manifest watershed restoration on that private land, which ultimately benefits the surrounding communities—both human and non-human. After the first two years in which the Institute pays for the Rio Hardy re-planting, the adjacent land owners will fund a percentage of future ecological work with the income they receive from their improved land.

People don’t move away from their home in Mexicali often, but there is an influx of outsiders from other parts of Mexico that settle in the area. Cristina admits she is happy to continue to live and work in the fertile valley because there are plenty of restoration projects yet to be carried out.

By Jessie Brandt

Spotlight on a Westie: Clara Hoffman

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Clara Hoffman

Class of 2021, Biology

Thetford Center, VT

Favorite Camp: A grassy crest of Starvation Ridge, north of Enterprise, Oregon


“I want to do good in the world, and I want to have a positive effect and have some sort of lasting change, but also to make the world a more beautiful place.”

The Dream, 1: Be involved in cutting-edge scientific research

Clara Hoffman has already had an impact as a scientist on the frontier of biological research. In high school, on the semester program at the Island School, she conducted marine studies of conch and her results were integrated into the fishing policy of the Bahamas. Later, at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Clara worked with ancient microorganisms found in the permafrost of the Arctic Circle and the microbial bioremediation of munitions and petroleum on military sites.

The Dream, 2: Translate that research through art in writing and photography

The Island School also cultivated a love for writing in Clara. Assignments centered on “natural history writing” and vivid descriptions of reef ecosystems. Embarking on Semester in the West, the writing of dispatches and other sensory scene descriptions has been Clara’s favorite part of the curriculum, but she admits to feeling insecure around some of the more experienced writers on the trip. Clara’s taken this in a positive direction: “This has made me want to be a better writer more than anything that’s ever happened in my life.”

The Dream, 3: Communicate in a way that is impactful to non-scientists

Clara balances a scientist’s mindset with a rural worldview, a talent not common in the West. Thinking of Wallowa County rancher Todd Nash, a passionate anti-wolf activist, she says “I feel for you, and I can still disagree with your opinions.” This consideration runs both ways, as she found wolf biologist Gabe Spence’s perspective on wolf conservation (“it’s just the moral thing to do”) disturbingly inconsiderate of ranching values. Clara’s deep-rooted belief is that if these two people sat down with one another, “there could be some interesting dialogues. There are a lot of problems that can be solved with plain communication.”

‘Plain’ is key in that sentiment. Researcher John Williams has worked on the wolf predation problem, and communicates his results in easy-to-read papers full of understandable charts and images, but refuses to acknowledge his bias toward ranchers. Recognition of one’s biases and complicity is key to communication, Clara believes. “Can’t you try to understand something that you don’t have experience in?”

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Abby Hill

Meet our Guests: Gabriela González Olimón

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Gabriela González Olimón

Environmental Education and Investigation Coordinator, Sonoran Institute

Mexicali, Baja California


In the middle of the Baja Californian desert, the sun is hot, water is scarce, and vegetation is rare. The trails of the Colorado River remind of what once was a vegetated area fed by the river. Suddenly, a forest of cottonwood trees appears. These were replanted five years ago and refuse to give up to the harsh conditions of the desert. They stand strong, the same way Gaby Gonzalez does when she confidently talks to us about her work and passion as a conservationist.

Gaby is a biologist, currently working as Environmental Education and Investigation Coordinator at the Sonoran Institute in Baja California, Mexico. Before, she spent six years of her life volunteering at different conservation projects across the US. SITW first met her back in 2014, interning at Grand Canyon National Park. Gaby mainly works in the Laguna Grande conservation area, designing educational programs and overseeing the monitoring of projects.

One of Gaby’s most important goals is to introduce communities to the reserve and raise awareness for the restoration projects there. She explains that when people visit the reserve, they are often surprised by nature. Gaby claims that people don’t often listen to the sounds of nature and animals. She mentions that one of her most impressive experiences with guests has been “people crying when they listen to the sound of trees being moved by the wind.” She regrets that lots of locals don’t even know that a century ago, the Baja California desert used to look like Laguna Grande currently does.

Gaby and the Sonoran Institute employees represent a new generation of environmentalists whose work goes beyond the environment. They also work in outreach by developing a relationship which empowers communities to take on and sustain the conservation projects in the future.

Gaby shares the Sonoran Institute’s dream of bringing people closer to nature so they can develop a relationship with it. She even looks at herself as two different people: “office Gaby” is sometimes moody, confined in the city of Mexicali, and “forest Gaby” is always happy with internal peace and closeness to nature.

By Juan Pablo Liendo Molina

Spotlight on a Westie: Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock

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Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock

Class of 2021, Rhetoric Studies

Orcas, WA

Favorite Camp: The slickrock of Comb Ridge, near Bluff, UT

“I’m not sure that I expected such constant contradiction.”

Applying to Whitman, Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock never truly considered Semester in the West: a cool program, but not fitting into the “Aliza Plan,” which involved psychology and a heavy interest in the politics of incarceration. In her first year at Whitman, she took that plan in a new direction, one that included Semester in the West. After a high school experience largely based on international travel, Aliza felt it was necessary look critically at the issues taking place close to home. Aliza saw this program as an opportunity to learn in what ways she, as a “Citizen of the West,” can step into the radical work that needs to take place.  

The West is full of contradictions: from kind ranchers who endorse feedlots and the brutal killing of wolves, to wild places that are no longer wild, Aliza found herself caught between differing perspectives of equally likeable people and the paradoxes of conservation. Semester in the West presents speakers one after the other, often with little time to reflect on how they align with one another. Aliza has found her own method to sort out this madness, via active listening that incorporates, “empathy and critique at the same time.” Holding her own core beliefs closely, she looks for the problematic power structures that both our group and guest speakers perpetuate. However, she does so with the intent of still learning from these people and experiences.

Author Amy Irvine cast this tactic as one not only of evaluating others, but oneself as well. Amy spoke on the value of making one’s own voice heard, but also of making sure to “find ways in which you are complicit” in injustice and environmental degradation. This stuck with Aliza as she examined her own hypocrisies. In finishing Amy’s writing assignment, a comment letter on the Draft Management Plan for Bears Ears National Monument, she asked herself, “is this really for me to speak on?” After time focused on engaging critically in this complex part of our country, Aliza decided that while her privileged voice should not be the loudest, she can use it to speak, and in small ways like this, insist upon change.

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by James Baker

Spotlight on a Westie: David Dregallo

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David Dregallo

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Sociology

Middlebury, VT

Favorite Campsite: a restored ranch house overlooking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at Kane Ranch, Arizona

When David Dregallo applied to Whitman College, he knew he wanted to embark on Semester in the West. There were many other things outstanding about the College: the Environmental Studies department, the men’s Ultimate team, and the chance to reside in a beautiful place far from home. David set SITW as his goal, and came to Whitman to achieve it. This sort of purposeful existence defines him: while on the program, David started looking for new places to live after graduation, comparing each to his home in Vermont. One step after another.

Early on our journey, David realized that the shifting and constantly mobile nature of the program did not fit his preferences. He describes himself as “much more of a sedentary person”, and the whirl of locations and speakers was bewildering. Caught up in his preexisting belief in the grazing methods of Allan Savory, David was surprised to find ecologists like Mary O’Brien who vilify that man and his methods. These differences in opinion are impossible to reconcile, so he followed the advice of collaborative group mediator Steven Daniels: find the areas of agreement, the connections between people and places. Collaborative efforts thrive on these small victories, which David claims is thanks to “respect for people’s ways of life.”

Quickly, David recognized that the passion driving Yellowstone conservationists to protect bison and wolves also fuels volunteers for the Sonoran Institute in Mexico, removing invasive tamarisk trees. These places are thousands of miles apart, and yet there is a strong desire in each to, as David puts it, “make it the best place.” David sees these efforts not as some conscious effort to “fix” the past wrongs of development, but as an innate love for a location and a community.

David seeks to replicate this path in his own life after Whitman. While many environmentalists tend to jump into issues, he “wouldn’t want to go to a place just to fix it.” Still looking for his place (Wallowa County, Northern New Mexico, and Tom Miner Basin were all close, but not perfect), David plans to choose his cause once he arrives, but no sooner. One step after another.

By Mitch Cutter

Photos by Darby Williams and Emma Jones

Spotlight on a Westie: Juan Pablo Liendo Molina

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Juan Pablo Liendo

Class of 2021, Environmental Studies—Politics

Caracas, Venezuela

Favorite Campsite: a grassy meadow among ponderosa pine, overlooking Winthrop, Washington, and the Methow Valley

The road to the American West was long for Juan Pablo, or JP, as everyone knows him. Born in Venezuela, his school experience took him to UWC Robert Bosch College (UWCRBC) in Germany, then to its sister school in China, UWC Changshu, as a resident assistant and student mentor. JP was guided to Whitman College by its Environmental Studies department and its reputation as a sustainable school.

Sustainability has interested JP for a long time. Venezuela is a country largely dependent on its reserves of oil, and while that has lent the nation immense “environmental privilege,” Venezuela has not sought to diversify their sources of energy. In contrast, Germany is well-regarded as among the world’s leaders in sustainable development; the mission of UWCRBC is to teach “how technology can contribute to sustainable, ecologically responsible development”

In light of these experiences, JP was disappointed with the reality of sustainable efforts at Whitman: no compost, few sources of renewable energy, and widespread waste of energy and food. JP wondered to himself: “What can I do myself?”

With SITW, JP has found that Whitman’s behaviors are in connection with towns and rural places of America. Environmental degradation is prevalent in the forests, plains, and deserts of the West, but there is also a blueprint for JP’s future in fixing these problems. From Kent Woodruff, a retired ecologist in the Methow Valley of Washington, found the importance of community: Kent was only able to achieve his long list of accomplishments with the help of a diverse group of others. JP realized that, to truly effect change in the world, “You cannot do it on your own.” The Sonoran Institute’s heavy emphasis on community outreach in the Colorado River Delta also impacted him, providing “proof that I can do powerful work myself if I have local support.”

JP doesn’t see himself as a future activist, but as a player in the political system here in the US, or home in Venezuela. Among his dreams is forming a trade & political bloc of Latin American countries, similar to the EU, since there are such strong bonds between nations in that region. Certainly, if Juan Pablo makes that happen, he won’t have forgotten that “communities are incredibly important to environmental and political change.”

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Clara Hoffman

Spotlight on a Westie: Cindy Abrams

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Cindy Abrams

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Politics

Portland, OR

Favorite Campsite: Stanley Crawford’s Home in Dixon, NM

Plenty happened on the night of November 8th, 2016. For one, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. For another, at Saint Andrews University in Scotland, Cindy Abrams’ New Zealander friend was laughing and joking at what had transpired across the Atlantic in America. Feeling “demoralized and powerless,” Cindy decided to repurpose her life. After leaving the US to study international relations in a foreign nation far from home, with few intentions of ever returning home, she started thinking about how to make an impact domestically, rather than internationally.

That new direction eventually took Cindy to Whitman College as a transfer student. An early interest in environmental politics convinced her to apply for Semester in the West, but a Spring Break service trip to the Navajo Reservation showed that her voice belongs in the American West. The student group’s Navajo hosts pleaded with students to call attention to ongoing pollution issues in the area related to a coal mine, saying, “We want our voices to be heard and echoed by you.”

Taking this plea to heart, Cindy has dedicated her time on Semester in the West to finding her own voice as a writer. Through the Epiphany writing assignments and writing workshops with guest authors, Cindy has rediscovered story telling as a creative outlet. Writing for journalist Ben Goldfarb, she realized that until then, she “hadn’t had fun writing in ten years.” The further away from traditional academic writing the assignment got, the more fun she had. In the midst of one of poet Ann Walka’s creative writing sessions, Cindy remembers, “I didn’t want to stop.”

Cindy sees this newfound interest leading to a career in publishing or environmental journalism. Goldfarb’s description of life as a journalist was particularly captivating: conducting interviews, traveling to the issues, and talking to someone new every day. In short, exactly what she’s done on Semester in the West.

By Mitch Cutter

Photos by James Baker and Juan Pablo Liendo

Spotlight on a Westie: Nina Moore

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Nina Moore

Class of 2020, Environmental Studies—Biology

Freeport, ME

Favorite Campsite: A dusty road outside Jackpot, NV

Nina Moore wants to talk to you. She wants to share just a part of what she’s seen in Maine, Indonesia, and, now, the American West. A seeker of adventure constantly looking for new things to do, Nina struck out from her home in Maine after high school to work in Jackson Hole, WY for Grand Teton National Park as a summer trail crewmember.

After growing up on the east coast, Nina chose Whitman College because it gave her “a backdoor to the West,” which, even after three years, still feels novel. In Walla Walla, Nina enjoys hiking and skiing in the adjacent “kinda mysterious” Blue Mountains and playing on the women’s lacrosse team.

On Semester in the West, Nina has found joy in the simple things: “Where I am, and who I’m with.” Similarly, simple and pure passion for a place or a field is what inspires Nina. Ecologists Janet Millard and Paul Arbetan, in particular, fascinate her and have made her realize that following one’s passion is worth the accompanying pain of things not always going the right way.

Taking Janet as an example, Nina knows that running one of the Northwest’s most important raptor migration centers at Chelan Ridge is a difficult job with ephemeral government funding. So why do it? Nina found a glimmer of the answer in the primal eyes of a sharp-shinned hawk in hand. It takes a “big-hearted person” with the right set of values to connect with a raptor, but it is these instinctive moments of connection with another species or a place that make bureaucratic infighting for resources a bearable chore.

Through SITW, Nina’s attention has been drawn to communicating the important of places like Chelan Ridge. That story starts with endangered raptors, but ends with the people like Janet who work there; combining ecology and heartfelt stories of human passion. She hopes to start that work as soon as the program ends, coming to her spring semester classes with ecological principles, vignettes of environmental enthusiasm, and the knowledge gleaned from the amber eyes of a sharp-shinned hawk to share.

By Mitch Cutter

Photo by Jessie Brandt

Meet our Guests: Paul Arbetan

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Paul Arbetan

Consulting Ecologist, Natural Heritage New Mexico

Albuquerque, NM


Through his work with New Mexico’s Department of Military Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, Paul Arbetan is a frequent visitor to the savannas and deserts of southern New Mexico. During our time with him as our guide, we explored the ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert through just a few of his many projects, including grassland, lichen, cactus, and Gray Vireo surveys.

Paul taught the Semester in the West students to read and understand a landscape and all its players through many lenses and places. Hiking to the snowy summit of Lake Peak outside of Santa Fe, he challenged us to consider how the adaptive suites of alpine plants might be altered due to climate change. Under the scorching sun of Roswell, we scoured arroyos and sinkholes in search of a rare, tiny, lime green lichen. Paul asked us the hard questions: why protect such a small, seemingly insignificant organism? To guide us toward answers (or perhaps just more questions), he incorporated regular philosophy readings and discussions into days spent counting grasses in the field.

Serenaded by the wrens of Boquillas Canyon amid a 3-day canoe trip on the Rio Grande, Paul paused in a discussion of Hegel’s dialectic to ask us why the little birds might be calling so late in the season. On one of our last days with Paul, we walked along the basalt talus slope of Black Mountain outside Deming, New Mexico, in search of a rare cactus that only grows under creosote bushes. We asked Paul how he keeps faith in his work and conservation as he watches this cactus population plummet towards extinction. He answered simply, “This is what I love to do. I’m selfish — I’m just having fun.”

To that end, Paul brought a lightheartedness to the otherwise science-heavy segment. Highlights included the company of Paul’s curious 6-year-old daughter, Esme (who impressed us with her fluency in the ecological vernacular of the New Mexican savannah), slurping Blizzards during a crash course on statistics conducted in a gas station Dairy Queen, and some first-class dance moves on our final night together. A close college friend of Director Phil Brick’s, it didn’t take long for Paul to likewise become a dear friend and mentor to the Westies.

By Nina Moore and Clara Hoffman

Photo by Whitney Rich

Meet our Guests: Stanley Crawford

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Stanley Crawford

Author & Garlic Farmer

Dixon, NM


The clock ticked forcefully against the silence of the scarlet living room, warmed by the yellow hues of cottonwood shining through a well-centered six-pane window. Adjacent to the neat panes stood a tower of novels, two stories high, each level tilted in discord with the last, elegant in its tenuousness. In every sense of the phrase, Stanley Crawford’s home is self-made. From the adobe bricks to the pinyon pine crossbeams, the house reflects his hard-working and passionate character.

Crawford is a writer, professor, and garlic farmer who owns and operates the El Bosque garlic farm in Dixon, New Mexico, a small town of 800 people nestled between Taos and Santa Fe. Since his arrival in 1969, Stanley has been integrating himself into the Dixon community, serving as a mayordomo (water channel manager), while helping to establish the local co-op. Primarily, Stanley is a garlic farmer, producing many different varieties throughout the spring and summer growing seasons to sell at the surrounding farmers markets in the fall. Stanley also teaches part time in the Southwest Studies department at Colorado College and is a renowned writer of non-fiction. His works primarily focus on ecological issues, including the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, water management, and of course, garlic farming.

In his parting words to the group, Stanley emphasized the importance of unpacking abstractions, writing shorter sentences, and embracing creativity in writing. Additionally, the students were also introduced to the routines of life on a small farm. Peeling garlic, planting garlic, and eating garlic became our second job. From Stanley, students learned as much about how to live a valuable life as they did about writing and garlic.

By James Baker

Meet our Guests: Adrian and Dan Herder

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Adrian Herder


Pinon, AZ

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Dan Herder


Hardrock, AZ


We sat huddled around a small fire on the Black Mesa Reservation with multiple generations of the Herder family. A delighted smile flashed across Adrian Herder’s face as he narrated ghost stories in the last bit of the day’s light. At twenty-six years old, Adrian is full of enthusiasm and is eager to share stories and the history and heartache of the Navajo land. Continuing in his family’s footsteps, he is a dedicated activist and originally connected with the Semester in the West program through contacts he made at an environmental conference held by the Grand Canyon Trust in 2014.  Like many young people on the reservation, Adrian left to pursue his education at Northern Arizona University but, unlike most, he was able to find a job back home coaching cross country and teaching art at the small high school in Pinon, thereby avoiding the all too common migration from reservation to city in search of work.  

In our few days on the Navajo Reservation with the Herder family, we were welcomed with a rare openness and warmth. As we introduced ourselves, the Herders asked us why we were there and what we wanted to gain from our experience. In resounding unity, we answered,  “to listen.” Adrian’s grandfather, Dan, told us that the animals used to lead them to the water sources, but now, due to the repercussions of the coal plant on the reservation and the rising impacts of climate change (the southwest being at the forefront of it), the soil has become dry and barren, almost uninhabitable. A sense of urgency and heartache emanated from each member of the Herder family as they spoke to us about how Peabody Coal has impacted their home and Black Mesa. “Our pristine aquifers have been sucked dry,” Dan explained. The only spring that flows near the Herder residence now is beneath a large rock canyon, and according to Dan, “It’s barely enough water to wet your hands and knees as you crawl through the rock wall tunnel.”

The next day, Adrian led us to a site where we helped lift rocks and move fallen trees to create gabions: small dams used for erosion control.  The Herders work vigilantly to divert rainwater, slow erosion, and create nutrient rich soil for vegetation growth. We listened, and the concerns were heard loud and clear. What will this land look like with the absence of water? What will it mean for the livestock, wildlife, and residents of Black Mesa, all of whom depend on water as a vital, life sustaining resource.

By Lauren Ewell

Photo by Jessie Brandt

Meet our Guests: The Herder Matriarchs

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Lorraine Herder

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Edith Simonsen

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Linda Henley

Hardrock, AZ


Big Mountain was set ablaze by the orange of the setting sun. A juniper-tindered fire scorched my skin, casting its umber glow upon the faces of the three matriarchs that sat across from me: Linda, Edith, and Loraine; “The Grannies,” the voices of reason, women’s voices that speak for the land and the Navajo community.

The light reflected upon their aged faces, accentuating their wrinkles and kind, wise eyes. Wool, artistically stained with juniper, prickly pear, and sage, slipped through their hands-- hands worn and weathered from a lifetime of weaving, herding, and tending to land, children, and their communities. Edith delicately ran her hands over one of her intricately-patterned woven rugs as she talked about raising her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren on these very lands, about their struggles with industry interests that seem to care little about their impact on the land, water, and air upon which the Navajo people depend.

 As our bodies rested on the rugs and our fingers felt the wool made from the sheep tended by these women, The Grannies recounted their most recent fight: a trip to New York City to protest the Navajo Generating Station, a nearby coal-fired power plant, from being purchased. Their resistance paid off; the prospective deal was stopped and the station will be closed in a year--a success for these women, their families, and others who spoke up for renewable energy, pure water, and clean air. Edith recalled her pride and admiration for Axheenaba, her youngest great grandchild and a budding activist, who united people together and led the chants saying, “water is life.” She remembers a time when the aquifer was pristine and full and feels called to fight for the land, the water, the animals, and of course, her children, grandchildren, and all those who will come after her. These are The Grannies--grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, wool makers, rug weavers, and fierce protectors of their homeland. In a place of abundant sunshine and winds, they seek clean energy and jobs that won’t make the people sick.

By Lauren Ewell

Meet our Guests: Roger Clark

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Roger Clark

Grand Canyon Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust

Flagstaff, AZ


Roger Clark seems at home on the rim of the Grand Canyon. With only open air below, Roger stands atop limestone explaining to us the layers of rock that comprise this awe-inspiring view. Before the geology lesson, we sat beside hunks of metal bolts that had been installed to transport engineers from the US Bureau of Reclamation, who were studying the canyon below as a potential site for Marble Canyon Dam. The work of David Brower and the Sierra Club stopped this project in its tracks and set a precedent of permanent protection for this canyon.

Roger began his career as a college professor and museum curator but after years he decided that was not what he truly wanted to do. Leaving academia, he naturally became a river guide on the Colorado River, forming a bond with the water and walls of the canyon. This love of the natural world is clear when he speaks about the multitude of topics that he is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about, ranging from uranium and coal mining to Native American tribal rights to development along the rim and preservation of the Canyon’s unique vistas. These are areas of immense challenge for environmentalists, and it would be difficult for a single person to take on any one of them. Yet Roger handles the entire Grand Canyon program with a subtle confidence and deep knowledge of history and politics.

As an educator, Roger has a deeply welcoming and helpful spirit that encourages every question and always leaves the asker satisfied. After spending his life in this chasm of political and economic interests, natural and indigenous resources, and absurd beauty, Roger Clark showed us his Grand Canyon, and took us over the edge.

By Eliza van Wetter

Photo by James Baker

Meet our Guests: Jason Nez

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Jason Nez

Archaeologist & Artist

Tuba City, AZ


We bounce, rattle, and roll with the potholes and washouts as we skip along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, listening to the hits of the 80’s. Jason Nez is at the helm, a Navajo archaeologist who spent the day out in the field showing us archeological sites that consisted of old ruins, pot shards, and petroglyphs. Driving along, Jason flashes a broad grin as we pepper him with questions, he seems to have a thoughtful response to all of them and appreciates our enthusiasm for learning about archaeology and asking him why he dedicates his time to it. He believes in the power of sharing these sites, educating people on the history of them and current cultural traditions as a means of conserving resources and protecting them into the future.  Jason’s passion stems from his desire for people to see that Native Americans have belonged as an integral part of the narrative in the history and future of this place. This is why he works to educate people about the importance of protecting cultural sites.

Jason emphasized that he wants others to see and feel the way he does when in a landscape or looking at a prehistoric site. He stated, “I want them to love these places. I want them to appreciate them, because when you love somewhere and when you love something, you will fight for it”. Jason’s breadth of knowledge and love for what he does stressed the importance of not taking projectile points, pottery shards, or remnants of other cultures home for one’s own selfish desires. Jason hammered home the necessity to leave artifacts in the dirt of the landscapes they inhabit, as they help to provide context, cultural significance and act as evidence highlighting the importance of native peoples.

By Liam Voorhees

Meet our Guests: Amy Irvine

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Amy Irvine


Norwood, CO


“We’re not going to survive if we think we’ve already lost”.

Amy Irvine, 6th generation Utah native and author of the books Trespass and Desert Cabal, joined us for a three-day writing workshop during our stay on Comb Ridge, a central location to the Semester in the West program. On Amy’s first night with us, we discussed our hopes and fears with one another and felt the gravity of the environmental crisis on our hands. The concerns held but previously unstated by the group washed over us harder than the night’s pelting rain.

Using the consuming guilt and fiery passions held by everyone, Amy harnessed our drive, and helped us uncover the potential of 21 driven individuals, allowing us to regain a sense of power in a moment of vulnerability and despair. “Every one of your voices counts in a way you can’t imagine”, Amy announced after giving us our cumulative project: writing a comment letter on Bears Ears National Monument’s precarious fate. “Can you say the thing that nobody has said in a way someone might listen?” she asked. The comment letters we wrote were designed to be different than the typical letters sent in comment periods, focused on place and moments within the place that had inspired us to write a letter. The goal of the letter was to invoke a similar feeling of familiarity with the location to readers who may have a part in the decision-making process regarding Bears Ears.

Amy helped us gain confidence in nature writing, focusing deeply on our location at Comb Ridge and bringing to mind the late author Ellen Meloy’s “Deep Map of Place.” Bright colorful sunrises and sunsets falling across the sandstone ridges, along with sneaky cacti and black sagebrush growing in small stone cracks provided bountiful inspiration. As our visit with Amy went on, many members of the group became increasingly self-assured, sharing pieces with the group which evoked a new sense of hope and confidence. Each of us submitted a final comment letter to the BLM, hopefully guiding the agency as it struggles with how to best manage the unique resources of this remarkable place.

By Kate Dolan

Photo by James Baker

Meet our Guests: Joe Pachak

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Joe Pachak


Bluff, UT


Joe Pachak walks slowly through a fine drizzle, long goatee brushing his Patagonia jacket as he scans the rain-plumped red earth. Pausing, he kneels down, running his fingers over a protrusion of chert, a jagged scarlet patch of hard stone in a sea of soft limestone. He explains that these pockets of acidic chert formed in the basic limestone back when the crest of earth we are standing on now was at the bottom of an ocean. Picking up a piece of chert no larger than my thumbnail next to his knee, Joe’s hands mime the movements a flintknappers hands would make while forming a point.

Joe is an artist residing in Bluff, Utah, and has long been obsessed with discovering rock art and artifacts created by native peoples. Today, we are walking with him along the rim of a dried oxbow of the San Juan River just outside of Bluff, in southern Utah. He stops, showing us shrines, rocks that were used to knap flint, flakes, and potsherds ranging in color from yellow to red to black and white. We carefully place each artifact back in the spongy soil, tucking them under bushes and overhanging stones, but never burying them. We are in an area where archeologists from the BLM have removed many artifacts, and I ask Joe what his thoughts are on scientists removing artifacts versus leaving them in the field. He responds with a story-told softly through his white beard.

Growing up in Colorado, Joe followed his father in practicing a “finders keepers” methodology when they encountered artifacts and accumulated a huge collection of arrowheads. Obsessed from this young age, Joe eventually transitioned into a “finders leavers” mentality and practiced it so adamantly that his own father did not give him their arrowhead collection, for fear Joe would toss it back out into the sagebrush whence it was found.

Joe knows the power of an artifact left in place, from his many times guiding artifact hunting trips and witnessing the transformation of a person after finding an artifact. He also knows that many people don’t have the same mentality he does and would rather see artifacts safely scooped up by archeologists than in the private collections of people like his father. Throughout our drizzly walk, Joe encouraged us to feel the power of the pieces we found and their ancient spirits, and how we would like to continue encountering artifacts in their “native” environments.

By Clara Hoffman

Meet our Guests: Ann Walka


Meet our Guests: Ann Walka


Bluff, UT


When Ann first arrived to our camp, the sky was pink, and the sandstone a golden glow. I watched as she strolled, her eyes scanning the horizon in every direction. She paused to look up at Comb Ridge and the big sky all around. In this moment, her calm presence, and deep connection to this place were already palpable.

Ann Walka is a poet who splits her time between Bluff, Utah and Flagstaff, Arizona. During our time with her, she encouraged us to investigate this place with the full depth of our senses. Under Monday morning’s blistering sun she brought us down to the shade of a canyon, with Tuesday morning’s rain she brought us to the shelter of a grotto. From each of these bases she encouraged us to disperse off and find a place of solitude from which to explore our language. Each day she gave us loose assignments to encourage this exploration. We made maps, wrote weather reports, personal essays, list poems, and imaginative place-based stories. We sat in observation and free wrote, returning with philosophical quandaries, poems, personifications of the land and much more. With each assignment, she gave us time to ourselves, time to wander and enter the writing from our own place of curiosity.

In our final chair circle with her, underneath the starry sky, she commended how each of us had such distinct, individual voices. I wonder though if she realized the role she played in reminding us how to access this voice. Ann placed herself, a published poet, on a practically equal level with us, a group of students, some of whom couldn’t even remember the last time we wrote creatively. This humble presence, in combination with the space to wonder made it natural for us to put pen to paper and let our voices come through.

By Aliza Anderson-Diepenbrock

Meet our Guests: Mary O'Brien

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Mary O’Brien

Utah Forest Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust

Castle Valley, UT


Mary O’Brien, ecologist for the Grand Canyon Trust, sits with dusty, Chaco-clad feet outstretched under the shade of a pinon pine, explaining our assignment: an ecological assessment of a spring near Monroe Mountain in southern Utah. She’d like us to report on the spring’s habitat, its species and their relationships to each other and the spring. Simply stated, she wants us to observe. “I see science as a way to interview the world,” she explains. This sentiment represents Mary well. She possesses a curiosity and devotion to the natural world that is hard to come by. Melding biology with politics, activism, and passion, Mary understands the intersectional way that science merges with other disciplines.

Mary often wears a wide, eye-crinkled smile or an intensely serious frown. While showing us a dying aspen stand, she wears the latter. Leaning over a juvenile tree, she notes its buds have been browsed, explaining that its opportunity for growth this year has been stunted. It’s something most of us wouldn’t notice, but Mary is acutely aware of the destruction that ungulates, especially cattle, are inflicting upon our public lands. During our two weeks with her, she teaches us how to notice the signs of an ecosystem in trouble, from overgrazed bunchgrasses to murky brown creek water. But Mary doesn’t just immerse us in her world of ecology. On a crisp, sunny afternoon at the Koosharem Guard Station in the Fish Lake National Forest, she introduces us to two men she works with in a collaborative. The collaborative aims to bring people of different backgrounds together to decide how best to manage grazing on public lands. Mary is the only environmentalist and only woman in the group and uses her voice to “speak for the plants,” as she puts it. She is not intimidated to be in the minority: it fuels her fire.

One thing that’s clear about Mary is that she is tireless in her environmental efforts. For the past 35 years, she has worked sixty hours a week, pushing against the strong conservative forces that seek to destroy the land. After some wins, but many defeats, she still remains steadfast. Walking in an aspen grove, I asked Mary how she stays hopeful. “Well, if I feel defeated then they’ve won,” she replies, chuckling. Knowing Mary as I do now, I’m certain she won’t back down until she’s won.

By Abby Hill

Photo by Whitney Rich

Meet our Guests: Steve & Robin Boies


Steve & Robin Boies

Owners, Hubbard-Vineyard Ranch

Jackpot, NV


Robin and Steve Boies smile down at us with welcoming eyes and lean back casually against the propane tank in their yard, the word “LOVE” graffitied on the side in big white and blue lettering. We gather on the residential portion of their Hubbard-Vineyard Ranch, located just outside of Jackpot, Nevada. The ranch has been passed down through four generations and is equally a profession, passion and lifestyle for the couple. As we watch their countless dogs roam free under the gentle late-summer sun, the Boies admit their only complaint is the constant whoosh of passing cars on Highway 93, which runs parallel to their property.

Steve and Robin own 13,000 acres of private land, and the rest of their 130,000 ranching acres are under control of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At the center of competing interests between state and federal bureaucracy, mining companies, environmental groups, and fellow ranchers, the Hubbard-Vineyard ranch reveals the great complexities that arise for the modern-day rancher in Northeastern Nevada.

The Boies are major proponents of combining ranching with conservation. They practice an Allan Savory-esque holistic management style which supports grassland regrowth and requires two years of pasture rest for every year of use.

 As our conversation turns from crested wheatgrass re-emergence to the impact of the Paris Agreement withdrawal, it is clear that the Boies are well informed and deeply passionate about resolving the multipronged issues they face. While there are no obvious solutions, it is comforting to know there are people like the Boies willing and dedicated to push in the right direction.

By Amara Killen

Meet our Guests: Todd Wilkinson

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Todd Wilkinson

Journalist & Founder, Mountain Journal

Bozeman, MT


Introducing ourselves under the glaring sun on Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch in Southwest Montana, Todd Wilkinson posed a seemingly simple prompt that would become deceivingly complex: “Stand and state something that you believe to be true. Be confident in your conviction.”

 Throughout our week with Todd, a non-fiction writer, journalist, and creator of the online environmental publication, Mountain Journal, we became accustomed to his zeal for finding the truth and poking holes in people’s preconceived notions of wildlife in Greater Yellowstone. He pushed us to ask the “hard” questions and challenge our own beliefs as well as those of our speakers. This happened almost immediately, as many students disagreed with Ted Turner’s sole private ownership of the expansive Flying D, while Todd defended Turner’s domain, which is far from the public eye and the difficulties of federal management. Todd’s opinion was at first unpopular, but this encouraged him to show us the nuance within conservation, revealed further as we traveled through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. He introduced us to the concept of “loving a place to death” and the issues inherent to federal land management. Yellowstone is not necessarily “wilder” than the Flying D, even though the former is a preserved wilderness and the latter a working bison ranch.

 Todd is no stranger to controversy: among his guests were Turner Enterprises biologist, Carter Kruse, and Yellowstone Park superintendent Dan Wenk. Kruse, in order to reintroduce Westslope cutthroat trout to a creek on the Flying D, eradicated all fish in 70 miles of stream. Wenk is in the middle of a battle over his own legacy, as the Trump administration unexpectedly seeks to remove him from his post at Yellowstone. Todd wasn’t shy about sharing his thoughts on these complicated topics, but didn’t try to turn anyone to his point of view. His mission was to help us recognize our own biases, and always ask the hard questions, both of our guests and of ourselves.

By Lauren Ewell