Semester in the West 2014

Follow our journey across the interior American West as we learn about public lands conservation and rural life in the face of climate change.

Westies read their character sketches during the last morning of our writing workshop with author Bill deBuys.

Early morning autumn rain.





Martha Hahn (Top)

Chief of Science and Resource Management - Grand Canyon National Park


The staff and volunteers from the Science and Resource Management Center at Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

October 9-11, 2014

Thank you to Martha Hahn and all the wonderful staff and volunteers from the Science and Resource Management Center at Grand Canyon National Park!  We spent three days with the National Park Service running biological transects on the north rim of Grand Canyon, collecting baseline data on the impact of non-native bison within the park boundaries.  What an amazing backdrop for fieldwork and lessons on ecology. Thanks for an amazing three days!

Our wonderful camp in El Valle, NM.

Author Bill deBuys leads Westies on “The Walk” near his home in El Valle, NM.
Photo by Eve Penberthy

The small town of Truchas in the Sangre de Christo mountains of northern New Mexico, on our way to meet with author Bill deBuys!

Westies help harvest autumn corn on the Hopi Reservation!
Photo by Anna Von Clemm

Paul Ostapuk

Environmental Director, Navajo Generating Station

Page, Arizona

October 7, 2014

Paul Ostapuk, environmental director of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Page, Arizona, led us into the belly of the beast by giving us a tour of one of the most well known coal-fired electric generating plants in the U.S.. Having read The Monkey Wrench Gang as a young man, Paul never imagined he’d end up managing a coal-fired electric generating plant in the backyard of Glen Canyon Dam. Now he is in charge of running the plant providing power to 500,000 electric customers in Arizona, California, and Nevada and jobs to 520 employees, 70% of which are people from the Navajo Nation where the plant is based (source: NGS pamphlet). Focusing on air quality and preserving the excellence of the NGS workplace, Paul was a voice encouraging us to not be too quick to write off NGS as a dirty coal plant. He called for thoughtful consideration of the station’s integral role in providing reliable electricity and opportunities for the nearby communities and wider southwest.

By Eve Penberthy

Westies build a brick patio for Glenmore Begaye, Navajo resident on Coal Mine Mesa.


Brett Isaac (above)

Director, Shonto Energy


Doug Yazzie (not pictured)

Program Manager, Shonto Energy

Shonto, Navajo Reservation, AZ

October 6, 2014

Thank you to Brett Isaac and Doug Yazzie for meeting with us for an evening on the Navajo Reservation.  Brett and Doug work for Shonto Energy, a small company providing off-grid solar power units to families and individuals across the Navajo Reservation and the greater southwest region.  Brett and Doug work to provide solar systems that are cost-effective and reliable.  Their visit provided students with a fascinating look at local, community-based renewable energy initiatives on the Navajo Reservation.



Norman Benally

Sheep Farmer, Environmental Advocate

Black Mesa, Navajo Reservation, AZ

October 6, 2014

Norman Benally has lived on Black Mesa near Kayenta, Arizona his whole life. Next to his childhood house stands his family’s sheep pen, pieced together with scrap wood and old automobile parts. While preserving the Navajo tradition of herding sheep, Norman has installed solar panels at his sheep camp and he speaks up strongly about his opinions of environmental issues on the Navajo Reservation. Only a few miles from Norman’s house, large scale strip mining is occurring on Black Mesa. Several of Norman’s relatives, along with thousands of other Navajo, have been relocated on the Reservation by the Navajo Tribal Government at the request of the Peabody Coal Mining Company. As a major source of employment and income to the Navajo Tribe, the majority of Navajo on the Reservation are in support of mining, at least publicly. Over the 50 or so years of Norman’s life, he has seen local water quality plummet, has woken up to hazy yellow smog from the Navajo coal power plant smeared on the horizon, and watched his homeland be transformed into toxic soil fields reseeded with non-native plants. He, among many of the Navajo, are working to find the balance between preserving the culture, health, livelihoods, and land on the Reservation.

By Riley Mehring

Mary O’Brien

Utah Forests Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust

Castle Valley, UT

September 14 - October 1, 2014

Mary graced us with her ecologically resilient presence for two weeks, whipping us into scientific shape and inspiring us constantly. Mary is a scientist on a mission to change her part of Utah, and she managed to weave policy and purpose into our numerous tasks with her. We started out at her beautiful straw bale home in Castle Valley, Utah, hiking into nearby alpine areas of 12,000 feet to find signs of trespassing mountain goats. After spending a day compiling a scientific report of our findings to present two days later to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, we left for Monroe Mountain in the Fishlake National Forest. For two days we measured and counted aspen suckers in recently burned areas. The data will be used to determine the extent to which new aspen growth has been protected from grazing, as was the Forest Service plan. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was our final worksite, where we looked even closer than before. We ran transects to detect the presence of biotic soil crusts, communities of bacteria (and sometimes moss and fungi) that are an important part of the desert ecosystem. Mary provided the scientific reasoning behind each unique task, and we emerged newly knowledgeable and motivated. None of us will soon forget Mary’s parting speech, as she called for us to check the facts, ask the tough questions, and not be afraid of strong convictions.

By Andrew Reckers

Fun near Lee’s Ferry during a day with the Grand Canyon Trust!

A second full day of ecology field work with the National Park Service, with another amazing view!

The subjects of our study in Grand Canyon National Park.