From White Bark Pines to Prairie Dogs

I spent the fall of 2017 traveling over 1,500 miles throughout central Montana in a van, in a kayak, or on my own two feet with The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI). Central Montana is an ecologically and culturally distinct landscape. I wanted to experience diverse environments and the people intimately connected with them. I hoped to gain a more personalized and less academic perspective on our current global ecological crisis in a localized fashion. I was constantly challenged by my instructors, peers, guest speakers, and our reading material.

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Everything I expected from WRFI was exceeded. I felt ultra comfortable in the woods, on wild rivers, and in the prairie, even spending a full 24 hours completely alone in the back- country. Two months of living in a tent together, and a group of 10 strangers quickly becomes your family. Daily classes on mountain tops and along rivers allowed me to engage deeply with material and my peers. I had the chance to think critically about why I had the point of view I did. Something so simple, but important for anyone.

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One specific issue challenged myself and the group more than any other. We were discussing the pros and cons of a proposed mine outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. On one hand this mine threatens one of the most iconic rivers in Montana, the Smith River. On the other hand, it would bring jobs to one of the poorest counties in the country and is heralded as one of the most advanced mines of its kind. We met with both mine supporters and opponents. We visited the site of the mine and the Smith River. We felt the need in the community for this project, the hope it brought, but we also felt the beauty and magnificence of the Smith River and its surrounding ecosystem. At the end of the day, we were conflicted, despite being well-informed. But that is the crux of complicated issues, its more than the facts, our values also play in integral role in our decisions about how we think the world should look.

At the end of WRFI I found myself thinking that all environmental issues aren’t simply about landscapes and ecosystems, but the human layer that is inevitably nested within them as well. There are no black and white issues, good and bad guys. There are humans trying to provide the best lives for themselves, their families, and hopefully the earth.

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