June 22, 2012

Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons and Culture is a 12-credit, nine-week course that allows students to backpack through spectacular red rock canyons, float down winding rivers, and meet the people that call this region home. Course content focuses on desert ecology, land use history, and wilderness ethics to Native American history and philosophy, geography, and the current environmental issues the people and this region face.

Wilderness travel through the red sandstone heart of southern Utah takes us into some of the most remote canyons in the region. The course begins and ends in Green River, Utah.

For the first three weeks students backpack through the seldom-visited Horseshoe Canyon and Dirty Devil River Canyon. Week Four is spent canoeing through the Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon. This landscape helps students develop a sense of place and gain a firm understanding of the Colorado Plateau’s natural history. We study the incredible ecological interactions and geological phenomena that make this place unique, and contemplate the lives and livelihoods of the first indigenous people that walked this land. In addition, we learn of the political and social issues that shape our personal and societal connection to the Colorado Plateau.

Following our extended backcountry trips, we spend two weeks in the front-country meeting with local environmental activists and resource experts. We head south from Moab to northern Arizona to explore prehistoric human dwellings at Hovenweep National Monument, which we learn about from archaeologists and park rangers. Traveling back to the present, we travel south to spend several days living with a Navajo family. We will be involved in a daily living ceremony, participate in a sweat, and talk to leaders in cultural and natural resource positions. The Hopi Reservation is inside the Navajo Reservation, so we will also visit with Hopi people to gain knowledge and perspective on the history and current politics on the Colorado Plateau: power generation, culture, and land use. We will get to see first-hand several controversial power (and revenue generating) projects, including Glen Canyon Dam, the Navajo Generating Plant, and the Black Mesa Coal Mine. We will also visit with endangered species biologists working with the California condor project and with the willow flycatcher in the Grand Canyon. We will camp near historic Lee’s Ferry and visit Lake Powell.

Our final backcountry section will be in the Dark Canyon Primitive and Wilderness Areas. The backpack trip will take us through a series of life communities, from desert to mountain, and a variety of public land management areas and designations. We will experience both healthy and altered landscapes in order to understand the different ways in which human cultures have chosen to interact with their environment through time.

Readings for the course include writings by Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and selected articles on conservation biology, environmental ethics, public lands policy, and ecology. We also meet with several local conservationists, wildlife biologists, land managers, recreation planners, and archaeologists from various federal, tribal, and private land management organizations.

In addition to the academic topics mentioned above, students will learn group safety skills for backcountry travel, minimum impact camping skills, orienteering, and plant, animal and mineral identification.