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: 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: Kent Woodruff


Kent Woodruff

Retired USFS Wildlife Biologist; Director, Methow Beaver Project

Twisp, WA


Kent Woodruff is no ordinary naturalist. Wildland firefighter, bat aficionado, hawk watcher, forest service biologist, and beaver believer, Kent flows over with passion for his home, the Methow Valley. He has an amazing way with words and people. He is a champion of wildlife recovery, reintroduction, and the founder of crucial environmental groups and projects. We learned that the Methow is an ecological haven for hawks, beavers, elk, wolves, bats, rattlesnakes and more. Over the weeklong crash course in ecology we learned the many interactions between species, the land, and the role that humans have taken in restoring much of these interactions. Kent brought our focus to a few critically important and/or imperiled species of the Methow including the Peregine Falcon, Western Rattlesnake, Townsend Big-eared Bat, and the Lookout and Loop Loop wolf packs. It didn’t take long for Kent to transfer his passion for the Methow to us. Kent taught us about the wonders of the beaver, what he calls the “Machinery of the Methow” for their stream damming, habitat creating, and overall transforming characteristics.

Kent is the founder of the Methow Beaver Project, designed to reintroduce beavers into degraded habitats, where streams run fast and lose their water quickly, to create healthy riparian areas, store water, and attract wildlife. Kent is a beaver believer and we quickly converted too as we waded through a series of beaver ponds, searching for indicators of transformation, succession, riparian habitat, and changes to the forest. Beavers had been introduced to this site two years prior and had quickly gotten to work. We found frogs, birds, snakes, moose, aspen, and more, nurtured by these benevolent beavers. It wasn’t hard to see that Kent holds the beaver close to his heart. The species unite the ecological diversity of the Methow in their restoration capacities and recovery as a species. Kent’s positive energy and passion for the projects he spearheads has inspired us to “dig deeper”, never settle, and to be curious of the world around us. 

By Whitney Rich

Photo by Amara Killen