Whitman in the Wallowas gives students hands-on experience with environmental issues

Karah Kemmerly

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This summer, 12 environmental studies students are going on a mini Semester in the West-inspired excursion. Whitman in the Wallowas, a new six-week-long summer program, gives students the opportunity to learn about the ecology of the Pacific Northwest and to work with Wallowa Resources, a non-profit group working to inform residents of Wallowa County about environmental issues.

Students on Semester in the West listen to Wallowa Resources staff member Holly Akenson talk about wolf reintroduction in Wallowa County. Photo contributed by Natalie Jamerson '13.

The program is a unique environmental studies course in which students study in an outdoor setting under several instructors from different disciplines. Participants will camp and learn at several different sites in Wallowa County, which is located in northeastern Oregon.

One third of the program will focus on natural sciences, one third will deal with economic, political and environmental issues in the county, and the final third will be a writing project inspired by Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac”, a classic work of conservation literature.

Participants will keep journals throughout their time in Wallowa County and use these entries to produce a “Wallowa County Almanac”  by the end of the program. Each student on the program will write a chapter for the book.

Don Snow, senior lecturer of environmental humanities and general studies, believes that themes from this work tie in perfectly to projects students will work on in with Wallowa Resources.

“One important theme in the almanac was the relationship between ecology and the economy,” he said.

He believes Leopold and the Wallowa Resources team have very similar goals.

“Leopold was a realist, and he knew humans were here to stay. So instead of a hands-off nature policy, he emphasizes the need for humans to see themselves as a part of the biotic community and therefore to be mindful of the effect they have on it. Wallowa Resources would probably say to that: ‘Amen, brother.'”

Wallowa Resources is focused on issues involving renewable energy, predatory populations, forestry and building a sustainable economy.

“With Wallowa Resources, students are shown real situations. Then it’s up to them to sort their way through and make decisions,” said Snow.

Delbert Hutchinson, associate professor of biology, will primarily teach students about the ecology of the Northwest. He is glad that this program will give more students the opportunity to experience something like Semester in the West.

“Semester in the West has been hugely popular, but it’s not practical for us to do it every semester. We think Whitman in the Wallowas will be a good alternative,” he said.

Like Semester in the West, which is offered every other year, Whitman in the Wallowas will be offered periodically. The exact frequency of the program has not been determined.

Hutchinson is also especially excited about working with Wallowa Resources.

“There’s some really cool stuff going on there.  It’s interesting that such a rural, conservative community is doing so much with environmental issues on the ground. There’s a lot [it] can teach us,” he said.

Junior Alegria Olmedo, an environmental humanities major, is also looking forward to applying her knowledge.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see exactly how you can apply the major. In this program, we get to see how environmental studies plays out in real life,” she said.

Olmedo, who is from Ecuador, was initially skeptical about going on the program, but was motivated by a desire to learn more about the northwest.

“I’m not from here,” she said. “During my classes, professors and students will talk about these places I’ve never even heard of. I want to know more about the northwest.”

In spite of the fact that she’s never been camping, Olmedo is excited to go on the program. After hearing some of her friends talk about their experiences with Semester in the West, she decided Whitman in the Wallowas would be good for her.

“They talked about getting closer to each other and actually living what you’re studying. It wasn’t like a lecture. It was a real experience,” she said.

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